Monday, March 13, 2006

Clock Ticks on Out-of-Whack Legislature

by Kyle Michaelis
Whose priorities are these? Does anyone else get the feeling that the Nebraska Unicameral has not only bitten off more than it can chew but might also be barking up a couple of wrong trees? Pretty impressive for one body to violate multiple metaphorical maxims at once.

Here's the Omaha World-Herald giving us the skinny on what seems a rather gluttonous legislative agenda:

With 19 working days left before Nebraska lawmakers call it quits and leave town, they have yet to tackle most of the legislative session's biggest issues.

The full Legislature hasn't started debate on the budget, tax cuts, water management, Omaha schools, sex offenders or the possible impeachment of University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert.

Nor have lawmakers addressed 43 of the 49 bills that senators designated as their priorities, or 16 of the 29 committee priority bills.

Only 34 bills and one proposed constitutional amendment have passed since the 60-day session began Jan. 4. It is scheduled to end April 12.

Speaker of the Legislature Kermit Brashear of Omaha isn't fazed.

"The day count is the easiest thing to do. That doesn't say anything about the hour count," he said. "We're two-thirds of the way through in days, but not in hours."

Other legislative veterans expressed confidence lawmakers will find ways to accomplish what needs to be done.

"Every year it looks as if there's no way on God's green earth we're going to get through the agenda - and almost every year it all gets done," said State Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln....

This week will see the first round of debate over the budget. The Appropriations Committee has offered proposals that would add $18 million to the $6.13 billion, two-year general fund budget passed last year.

"The budget's the main deal," said State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine. "That's the one we have to get done. There's certainly a lot of things we'd like to get done."

I don't mean to be Mr. Negativity, but - this far into a short legislative session - I think Nebraskans are right to be concerned that senators might try squeezing in too many votes with too little actual debate and too little concern for the long-term interests of the state. Although it's clear the 20 senators being term-limited after this session want to shape a legacy, the state would likely benefit most from their using that expertise to put Nebraska on the solidest possible economic footing rather than trying to do everything for everyone and solve every problem on the horizon.

It's disappointing that the two controversial bills that have actually seen real movement are the authorizations of Fetal Assault as a crime and "Conceal & Carry" weapons permits - two incredibly divisive issues made suspect by the apparent political motivations of their backers more than the actual legislation. That both bills seem on the verge of passage - when they are so limited in scope, divisive in character, and largely irrelevant but to an elite group of conservative special interests - suggests this year's agenda is not being set according to the real priorities of the common Nebraska voter.

Still, more than these peanuts being thrown to right-wing monkeys on the people's time, I'm far more worried about the state trying to do too much, especially concerning school reorganization. It's unfortunate that the Omaha Public Schools situation has gotten to this point, but a problem 40 years in the making is not going to be corrected by a snap of the legislatures' fingers - especially when the law as it currently stands offers terms for negotiation and and/or a court fight that may prove unavoidable no matter what the legislature attempts.

This issue is so contentious that to even think of tackling it while the state's budget is on the line and talk of tax cuts yet fills the air seems quite irresponsible. These are two very different and time-consuming roads - for the legislature to attempt traveling down them both might prove disastrous without having made more headway this late in the game.

Responding to threats by Sen. Ernie Chambers to bring the legislature to a stand-still to halt the progress of the aforementioned Fetal Assault and Conceal & Carry indulgences, Sen. Patrick Bourne of Omaha, at least, shows some understanding that the Unicameral needs to tighten its belt and reign-in its agenda. He told the Lincoln Journal-Star, "The Legislature will craft an appropriate budget bill that will provide for the needs of the state. We will have a meaningful tax cut. And we will do what the public needs on sex predators, and meth treatment."

That there is a reasonable agenda for the time remaining, but the legislature's setting its sights on much more will mean that even these areas where real necessity and real room for compromise exist are likely to be short-changed or even shelved in favor of rush jobs and pet projects that don't serve the interests of the voters.

This is in no way a call for a "do nothing" legislature. All I ask is that what they do, they do well and they do responsibly. That means giving everyone a chance to be heard. That means setting priorities and making choices that will prevent the legislature from getting bogged-down in a hell of pomp and procedure.

There are real problems before this state - very real problems that show no sign of alleviation and actually seem likely to get a whole lot worse in the decades to come. We can either recognize these and start sensibly preparing ourselves accordingly .... or we can short-sightedly allow the legislature to be a playground for the children fighting their silly culture wars.

Time is tight. Duty calls. Let's hope our senators have the sense to recognize that recess is over.


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