A View from Behind the Glass: What to Expect in the 108th Legislature
As we prepare for the new legislative session, Nebraska’s facing a substantially changed landscape in the Unicameral. There are 16 new state senators, which is nearly one in every three legislative seats. In addition, our governor’s office is transitioning and a wave of retirements is occurring for legislative employees responsible for the important behind the scenes work of the body. The Unicameral is undergoing a great loss of historical knowledge and experience, and is beginning a period of change.
Today on Nebraskanomics, I’m going to turn the microphone over to three of our staff members who are former Nebraska state senators:
- Jim Smith, Chief Strategy Officer
- Dr. Laura Ebke, Senior Fellow
- Nicole Fox, Director of Government Relations
They’ll discuss what is happening in the weeks before a new session that may not be obvious to the average Nebraskan. I hope you enjoy their conversation.
Nicole Fox: This episode was produced in the weeks leading up to the start of the 108th Nebraska Legislature. But as we know, much of what happens in the weeks leading up to the first session of the two-year legislature will serve as an important foundation.
Today, we will highlight key activities leading up to the start of session and those that occur in the first few weeks of session.
I’m Nicole Fox, Director of Government Relations and the chief liaison between The Platte Institute and the legislature. I served in the legislature during the 2016 session. Today, I’m joined by Laura Ebke, Senior Fellow at The Platte Institute, and Jim Smith, our Chief Strategy Officer. Both Laura and Jim served in the legislature, and I’ll let them tell their stories a little later.
As many know, the 108th Legislature begins with the 90-day first session in 2023. 2024 will be the short 60-day session of the 108th Legislature and will mostly serve as a continuation of the first session. For example, the leadership elected and selected at the start of the 2023 first session will carry over to the 2024 second session.
Unfinished business will carry over as well, like bills that don’t make it across the finish line. Therefore, what happened at the start of the first session is extremely important. Let’s start by talking about leadership and committee assignments and how it all begins.
Jim, can you tell us about your history in the legislature and what you see as important activities leading up to the start of session?
Jim Smith: Thanks, Nicole. I served in the legislature from 2011 to 2018. My standing committee assignments during that time included the natural resources, business and labor, urban affairs, transportation and telecommunications, and revenue committees. I served as Chair of the Transportation, Telecommunications and Revenue Committees.
I also served as the Vice Chair of the Committee on Committees, Select Committee. A lot of committees there. The latter of which I’ll talk about in just a moment, but much of the significant decisions made in the first day of session is based on activities that occur late in the year leading up to session.
For background, our 49 state senators are traditionally grouped according to the three congressional districts:
- 1st Congressional District (centered in Lincoln)
- 2nd Congressional District (centered in Omaha)
- 3rd Congressional District (greater Nebraska)
As those groupings occur, both the second and the third districts will each have 16 senators. The first congressional district will have 17 senators. The senators within each group will caucus prior to the start of the first session of the legislature.
As Nicole mentioned, the first session of the 108th Legislature is 2023. It will be 90 days, and those additional days allow for the setup of activities. The caucusing that takes place in each of the three congressional districts ahead of session is primarily for the purpose of allowing senators from within the caucus to express their committee interests.
The caucus will then determine which four senators from their respective groups will sit on a very important Committee on Committee, Select Committee. They’ll also determine which two senators from each of those caucus will be part of the Executive Board from each of the respective groups.
On the first day of session, the Speaker, Standing Committee Chairs, Chairs of the Executive Board, and Committee on Committees will be elected. The Committee on Committees will now be made up of twelve plus that chair, and will assemble to make committee assignments.
On the first day, the committee members distribute assignments as fairly as possible so that each area of the state has representation on that respective committee. Once each committee is determined, the committee will meet to elect its Vice Chair.
All of those decisions that are made by the Committee on Committees will basically be ratified by the full legislature on one of the following days.
Nicole: Laura, tell us about your history in the legislature and your experience with the caucusing activities.
Laura Ebke: Sure, well I spent four years in the legislature. From 2015 through the 2018 session, and then left in January of 2019. The caucuses were something that was a bit foreign to me when I first came in. I didn’t really understand what they were going to do.
In my class, there were a fair number of us who were from the 3rd congressional district who were brand new. I think we were all pretty clueless at the time. Fortunately, there were a couple of people who knew what was going on, and they called the caucus together.
Because we’re from the 3rd District and there’s people that come from as far away as Scott’s Bluff and points west, we met right before the session started to kind of hash things out.
We had exchanged some email and such, but as Jim mentioned, we sat down with a piece of paper and listed our preferences. We decided who was going to be the committee assignments. We decided who was going to be our reps on the Committee on Committees and the Exec Board.
I think all the caucuses do things essentially the same way, but it probably depends a little bit on who the senior members are of the caucus who call folks together.
Nicole: Now Laura, can you tell us a bit about the first day of session and how that starts?
Laura: Yeah, the first day of session is pretty exciting. It gets right down to it. That’s family day. You get to bring your family in and take pictures.
When I entered in 2015, all three of my kids were there and my husband came and sat on the floor with me for a little while and they got lots of pictures taken in front of the bill. It was a great Christmas card that year!
You have a lot of senators who bring families on and then everybody’s just wandering around trying to figure out what they do next. They have the swearing in of the new senators, and you have clerk and temporary officers conduct the swearing in as Chief Justice comes to swear everyone in.
Then, you get down to business and the guests leave or go up into the gallery. The senators get to work electing the officers of the legislature, which includes the Speaker and the Clerk and the Sergeant at Arms. Then, you start electing committee chairs and get down to get down to business.
It’s 90 days. You don’t have a lot of time to piddle around on these things.
Nicole: So Jim, they start out electing the speaker and then what?
Jim Smith: Well, after the speaker, the most important thing is electing leadership of each of the committees.
The committee takes place in alphabetical order. I believe agriculture is the first committee, and then we move right on down. I think the last one for elections will be urban affairs, and those are the standing committees.
To be mindful, there are Select Committees, the Executive Board and the Committee on Committees. Although they are not standing committees, leadership will be selected on that first day for a couple of those select committees or special committees.
Then, there are rules committees and others that will take place, as well. But the thing that most folks look for on that first day is the election of chairs for those committees.
Nicole: Now that we’ve talked a lot about leadership assignments and how the committee makeup comes about, Laura, do you want to talk about committee staff?
Laura: Sure, it depends on the committee. Some committees have staff that just stay with the committee forever, or have been there for a long time. The Banking Committee recently lost their committee council. I think the Revenue Committee has lost a couple of staff members, as well.
When I came in as Committee Chair of the Judiciary Committee, both the legal council and the committee clerk had left right before the end of the session. So, anticipating that I might be elected committee chair, I went ahead and hired a couple of people on contingency because you never know until that first day whether or not you’re actually going to have the job and if there’s a contested election.
In the areas where there is typically a contested election, that’s where you get the permanent staff that sticks around. It would not be good to have bills getting introduced and not have committee staff figured out yet.
But yes, committee staff does a lot of work. Some committees only have one and a half extra people, usually a committee counselor or research assistant and a clerk. In some cases, for some of those intense and less busy committees, they share the administrative assistant and the committee clerk and do double duty.
Nicole: I know we’ve talked a lot about the leadership and the caucusing committee, but I remember where you sat in the legislature and where your office was located were pretty big deals. Jim, do you want to explain the office assignment process?
Jim Smith: Sure. And before I jump into that, I wanted to build off of something that Laura said on staff in the legislature.
It’s critical for the state of Nebraska to have legislative staff with experience and to retain those folks. Since our legislators have term limits, it is tremendously important for those legislators coming into office to have some continuity from their predecessor.
Their staff needs continuity too, and every member of the legislature is allowed two staff:
- Administrative Assistant (AA) to answer the phones and take care of keeping the office running smoothly.
- Legislative Aid (LA) to help senators put legislation and the agenda together.
As Laura said, in the leadership capacity of some of these offices, they will have additional staff to help them function for the committee itself. But of course, office and seat assignments are always on everyone’s mind. I may have a different take on this topic.
At one time, some senators had to share an office. This was before there were enough offices in the legislature where everyone had their own office. So, it was probably more important at that time to try to be in a position to have your own office and to have your own privacy.
As a new senator, and there were going to be four to six, I think there were only four senators that had to share offices. I intentionally moved to share an office for my first two years. For me, it was not a matter of office location and seat location, as much as it was for relationship building.
Of course, committee chairs have assigned committee offices. The Revenue and Judiciary Committee always have the same offices. So, once we get all of the chairs elected, we know who’s going to fill those particular offices.
Once the dust settles and we know those committee chairs, then remaining office space follows seniority. With term limits, there’s some equal seniority out there. When that occurs, we draw straws to see who gets to choose the office.
Once again, I know some people get hung up on office location. I would say it’s more of a convenience than a necessity to have certain offices. Then, there’s also the assignment of seating on the floor of the legislature itself, which again follows seniority and drawing of straws.
In my opinion, there’s no great or bad seat on the floor of the legislature. We’re all thankful to be an elected office holder and to have a seat at all.
Some people want to be on the aisle, so they can work the room a little bit easier. Some prefer to be near the back of the room. Some people want to be near the side so they can have easy access back and forth, in and out the chamber.
For me personally, I prefer the back of the chamber so that I can observe the interactions. Not all the way to the back, but further to the back where I could observe.
Something that will be interesting for the casual observer to note, is that the Speaker of the Legislature does the exact same thing. So, if the Speaker of the Legislature had a seat near the front before they were the speaker, they may choose to keep that same seat.
The only distinguishing feature with their seat is on their nameplate. They have an additional name plate that says “Speaker.” They can choose to be anywhere on the floor that they want to be. Of course, when they are sitting as the presiding officer of the legislature, they’re out of their seat up in the front of the chamber. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.
I don’t know if there’s any great or bad seats. It’s a personal preference, and it may just come down to convenience.
Nicole: Laura, anything you’d like to add?
Laura: Well yes, I had my preference. My preference was at the front.
You and I sat next to each other in 2016 and down at the front. I think I ended up there by default my first year, and I always liked it up there because I could watch what was happening up on the aisles.
You could see who was getting ready to drop a bill or an amendment. You could see the frustration in the clerk’s eyes when I saw more amendments showing up.
So, that was my favorite place to be when I became a committee chair. Two years later, I still wanted to stay up as close as I could to the front. I think I was about three rows back, but I moved over to the edge and that was at the clerk’s recommendation.
He said, “You’re going to be Judiciary Chair and you want to be close to the edge, so your legal counsel can come and talk to you.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” So he moved me, but it made a lot of sense because it was easier for the legal counsel to come and talk to me.
I still like being up to the front so that I could see what was happening at the front of the chamber. But again, you could do it from the back and there were lots of things that probably went on in the back that those of us up front didn’t see.
Nicole: Well, Laura, I will say I appreciated your mentorship in the time that I sat next to you up in the front row. So now that we talked about some of the different things going on in the background, getting ready for session and the first day of session, I’d like to talk about the first 10 days in general, and that is the bill introduction.
But to step back just a bit, there is activity going on in the weeks and months leading up to session. In fact, today I spent some time looking at a few bill drafts that will hopefully get dropped on one of those first couple of days of session.
The formal bill introduction does occur days one through 10 of session. What that means is that the final drafts of the bills are filed by senators with the clerk of the legislature. As those are filed, the clerk reads the title of the bill into the record and then assigns it a bill number.
After that occurs, bills are reviewed by members of the Executive Board. Then, they’re referred to the appropriate committee of jurisdiction. For example, if there’s a tax bill that’s being introduced, it’ll get referred then to the Revenue Committee.
Senators can introduce as many bills as they’d like, and some will introduce maybe five or 10 bills. But there’s some that have been known to introduce 30, 40, even 50 bills.
The committees can also introduce bills and they each get the opportunity to introduce up to eight. In a single session, when you think about all the senators and then all the committee bills, it’s not uncommon to see at least 600 – 700 total bills introduced.
Now, some of the bills that are being introduced might be a brand new proposal dealing with an issue that has come up over the course of the year. Some proposals are resulting from discussions that have been had about issues during previous legislative sessions.
For example, we will likely see proposals to reduce property tax burdens and adjust how we fund public K – 12 education. It’s a subject matter that we’ve seen before, but with a new proposal as to how to address the issue.
There will also be bills that will be brought back that were introduced previously. These are bills that maybe had some board momentum, but it just didn’t make it across the finish line due to some time constraints.
That definitely happened to a lot of bills that got out of committee last year. And then we’ll see some recycled bills that may have been introduced before but never gained much traction.
So in those first 10 days of session, Laura and I are busy reading through all of those bills and what we do then here at The Platte Institute and then we decide if we want to take a formal position on them.
Given that we’ll have 16 new senators and several new staff in the legislature due to retirements, I’m guessing that there could be a record number of bill introductions, which means we’ll have a lot of reading to do here at The Platte Institute.
Jim, Laura, tell me your thoughts. Is there anything I missed, or do you want to give a guess as to how many bills you think will be introduced?
Jim Smith: Well, I don’t know if I’d venture to guess how many bills, but there’s probably not a lot of new ideas under the sun. As Nicole mentioned, a lot of these are rereads that have been introduced before, or maybe didn’t get traction in a prior legislative session.
And your senator is probably going to feel more compelled to introduce more legislation because they’re fresh off the campaign trail. They’ve expressly heard from their constituents, and also they’re not holding a leadership position, so they have a little bit more time to focus on volume.
I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but whenever I was a newer senator, I introduced more bills. It was always well under a dozen bills. But once I moved into leadership with the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee and Revenue Committee, I really focused on that area of legislation. My individual bills that I would carry became fewer and fewer.
I think to your point, Nicole, because we do have a sizable number of new senators coming in fresh off the campaign trail. We likely will have an abundance of legislation dropped on that first number of days.
Laura: I’ll venture a guess. I think we’ll have over 800 bills pretty easily, probably closer to 850.
Nicole: As we wrap up today, would either of you like to share a quick bit of advice for new senators?
Jim Smith: Well, I’ll start. First thing is to enjoy the experience. For the new senators coming off the campaign trail, that was a great experience for them that they will take with them for the rest of their life.
And do the same with the first few days of your first legislative session. Just enjoy it. Work on those relationships. They will be relationships for life.
Laura: Yeah, I would echo everything that Jim just said. Enjoy the experience. Enjoy your time there. Try not to get too stressed out in those early days.
Start looking at some of those senior senators who you can trust or who you can develop a relationship with and watch what they’re doing.
I mean, when I was a first year senator, I knew who Jim Smith was and I always kept my eye on him because I always thought he had something cooking that I needed to know about.
Whether you’re there for one, three, four or eight years– it’s a great experience and you’ll never forget it.
Nicole: Laura, Jim, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a great conversation and I look forward to the start of session here in a few weeks.
Thank you for tuning in today. It’ll be interesting to see if Laura’s prediction of 800 bills introduced pans out.
In closing, I want to encourage you to advocate for bills that are important to you and to take full advantage of the information and resources we make available on our website, platteinstitute.org and through our weekly email.
Or, you can download our new Legislative Issue Guide for the 108th Nebraska Legislature. This guide is a public policy handbook for policymakers, providing insights and solutions for key economic issues facing our state.
It’s time to stop the status quo. Let’s remove economic barriers and make Nebraskans proud.