Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ambitious State Senators BANKING On Governor's Support?

by Kyle Michaelis
In considering the possible ramifications of term limits on Nebraska's legislature, probably the most common prediction has been an increase in the governor's influence over the legislative agenda. The thinking goes that with more inexperienced legislators and fewer entrenched leaders there will be a vacuum in power that the governor is best positioned to fill.

Of course, state senators owe the governor no more deference than they ever have. And, the legislature's nonpartisanship certainly encourages some measure of independence, ensuring that senators answer first and foremost to their constituents. Not a political party. Not the governor. (The special interests who fund their campaigns may be a different story.)

There's no denying, however, that the legislature is likely to take on a somewhat different dynamic in 2007. What that will entail no one can yet say with any certainty. Some would contend that Governor Dave Heineman's election with 73% of the vote is grounds for his claiming a mandate, but the fact that he didn't run on any particular agenda - more as just the competent incumbent - begs the question of how deep his support could actually run.

Still, he is the governor. He has power and influence. Whether rooted in his partisan affiliation or simply his position of pre-eminence in Nebraska politics, Heineman's is a voice to which senators will listen. That's certain to be the case on issues. It may even be the case in the election of their leadership.

Although it might violate the separation of powers under Nebraska's Constitution, a look at those State Senators who gave money to Heineman's campaign suggests that some of its most ambitious members might have been attempting to curry favor and win the governor's support for influential committee chairs or even as Speaker of the Legislature.

Consider the following Oct. 19th report by the Omaha World-Herald:
[T]wo returning lawmakers have announced they will compete for the Nebraska Legislature's top job.

State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk declared his candidacy for speaker of the Legislature in a letter delivered to colleagues Wednesday morning. Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln followed with a letter that should arrive today.

Flood, a Republican, was elected to the Legislature in 2004. Schimek, a Democrat, was elected in 1988.

Acknowledging his relative lack of experience, Flood said he would not have considered running for speaker at the end of the 2006 session. He said he changed his mind after being encouraged by many colleagues and after talking with previous speakers.

Schimek said she doesn't believe that being a Democrat running in a body where Republicans are the majority is necessarily a disadvantage. The Legislature is officially nonpartisan. She said skills, personality and friendship count for more than party affiliation.

A second Republican, Sen. Mick Mines of Blair, may join the race later. Mines, elected in 2002, said he is "very interested" in running for speaker.

Gov. Heineman's campaign received approximately $2.7 million in contributions, so it's hard to say how much one would have to give to be noticed, let alone to be in a position to ask a favor. But, in light of the above article, it is most telling that would-be Speakers Mike Flood and Mick Mines each made substantial contributions - especially considering their $12,000 annual salaries as State Senators.

Flood and his wife donated $1,050 to Heineman's campaign back in June. Mines, on the other hand, donated $1,000 on Oct. 20th, when it was quite clear that Heineman was on his way to victory. The amount suggests that Mines - in the midst of his own re-election campaign - intended to keep pace with Flood in the governor's affections. As a matter of timing, though, Flood must still be said to have the upper hand.

Then again, the fact of these contributions does not intrinsically imply currying the governor's favor. Interpreting such motive is little more than intelligent and entirely reasonable conjecture. And, alas, it will be practically impossible to discover what, if any, hand Heineman might eventually play in electing the next Speaker, as those pressures and subtle suggestions he might bring to bear on the process will almost certainly be in private.

But, looking at other state senators who donated to Heineman's campaign, it doesn't come as much of a surprise they are some of the most ambitious of the lot. First term Sen. Chris Langemeier (Schuyler) gave $1,000. Sen. Deb Fischer (Valentine) gave $500. Incoming Sen. Tom Hansen (North Platte) gave $1,100. Sen. Pat Engel (S. Sioux City), a 13-year veteran and recent Democratic defector who will be term limited in 2008, gave $500. And, Sen. Ray Aguilar's campaign committee (Grand Island) gave $550.

In that bunch are many who will be seeking committee chairs in the 2007 legislative session. It should be most interesting, indeed, to see how well positioned they all end up. Not that they would have bought their seat with a check to Gov. Heineman, but - hey - it couldn't have hurt either.

After all, if the man has newfound influence over the Legislature, it shouldn't surprise that a few senators would make an investment in Heineman (and in their careers) hoping he might use that pull on their behalf.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was surprised at the amount of campaign literature I received from the Republican party for a nonpartisan state legislator position. If you are correct about the govenor's clout this session, it would explain the Republicans trying to stack the chamber with "their own".


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