Sunday, June 10, 2007

Who Will Stand Up to Governor Heineman?

by Kyle Michaelis
Coming out of the 2006 elections having vanquished Tom Osborne in the Republican primary before capitalizing on that momentum to achieve the widest margin of victory in Nebraska gubernatorial history, it's understandable that Governor Dave Heineman should be in a strong position politically. But, the loss of a record number of incumbent state senators to term limits, along with Heineman's behind the scenes manueverings as a seasoned political pro, allowed Heineman to exercise power and influence over the 2007 Nebraska Legislature that, by the end of the session, proved almost downright despotic in scope.

Nevertheless, rather than taking the legislature's power-brokers to task for abdicating their responsibilities to the people of Nebraska by subservience to the executive branch, a trio of editorials published on consecutive days in the Omaha World-Herald last week instead went out of their way to squash dissent to Heineman's de facto takeover of the Nebraska Unicameral.

OWH Editorial (06/03/2007)
The 2007 legislative session stands out as a historic one for the way that lawmakers and the Governor's Office worked to tackle [several key challenges], each of which was duanting in its complexity and difficulty:...

Lawmakers reached agreeement - despite self-indulgent excesses during floor debate - on a large if flawed tax reduction package.
OWH Editorial (06/04/2007)
[P]erhaps the most discouraging episode during the 2007 session was the Legislature's debate over tax policy. A few lawmakers displayed remarkable disrespect toward the Revenue Committee, its chairman, Sen. Ray Janssen, and the overall process by working to short-circuit the committee's work and by repeatedly trying to revive tax proposals even after they had been decisively rejected by the full Legislature.

In the wake of that sunseemly episode, some lawmakers need to ponder a few things:

How bombast and displays of egotism ill serve the Legislature and the state, for instance. How partisan machinations hold a particular danger for a nonpartisan Legislature. And how the highest compliment a Nebraka lawmaker can receive is "He's a workhorse," while one of the most damning insults is "He's just a show horse."
OWH Editorial (06/05/2007)
Partisan politics has, of course, played a role to some degree in the nominally nonpartisan Nebraka legislature as the two parties jostle to score points. But the partisan fervor this session was unusually pronounced at times.

The Nebraska Democratic Party probed for opportunites, for example, and in general appeared to have more success coordinating its partisans than did the GOP.

At times, the political manuevering grew frantic and particularly counterproductive, as during the raucous efforts to hijack the work of the Revenue Committee during the debate over tax policy.

Lawmakers should go to the Capitol to serve the Legislature, not to make the Legislature a servant for one's personal political interests or those of a particular political pary. Otherwise, the legislative process is undermined.
Got to give the World-Herald credit for its ability to stay on message with its misdirection to cover for Heineman & Company, the real culprits behind the more partisan atmosphere taking hold in the Nebraska legislature. One can't help wondering if the World-Herald's rhetorical refrains aren't a result of their recently hiring Heineman's spokesman as an editorial writer.

Either way, I attempted to challenge the World-Herald's take, especially its obscuring of Heineman's hijacking of the legislature, with the following Letter to the Editor (appearing in Friday's edition, sanitized to remove any criticism of the newspaper itself):
The Omaha World-Herald has gone too far with its absurd attacks on several Democratic state senators for their supposedly legislating with a partisan agenda. Seriously, who does the World-Herald think it’s kidding?

This last session, we saw several Republican state senators flip-flop on the death penalty under heavy pressure from their party. We also saw Gov. Dave Heineman’s influence build to a point that it threatens the independence of our legislature as a separate branch of government.

Both in committee and on the statehouse floor, too many of our Republican state senators proved nothing more than puppets on Heineman’s string. For perfect examples, look no further than their rush to approve the budget with little substantial debate, their wholesale abandonment of promises to provide homeowners with significant property tax relief, and their unprincipled capitulation to Heineman’s veto pen.

This level of control in the governor's hands is a very disturbing development that is the true threat to Nebraska’s nonpartisan Unicameral, no matter the World-Herald’s partisan slight-of-hand.

If anything, we should be thanking those Democratic and Republican state senators who still have the courage – when necessary - to stand and fight against the "business-as-usual" status quo.

Kyle Michaelis
Of course, I regret that I wasn't able to provide more coverage of the legislature this spring. In particular, I failed to provide any real-time discussion of the tax-cut debate and completely neglected the appropriations side of things as soon as it became clear that the worst excesses of Heineman's budget weren't going to be enacted.

What's scariest about the 2007 legislative session is that Heineman has realized he can get away with almost anything without getting challenged directly by the legislature. He hasn't quite gotten to the point that he can dictate policy, but he can present a tax-cutting scheme fueled by deception and a radical, irresponsible budget that sets the tone for debate throughout the entire session without being called out for either offense.

Reading the World-Herald's editorials above, you'll notice that they talk about the need for State Senators to serve "the Legislature." They want service to decorum and slavishness to procedure and politeness. What the World-Herald doesn't want to see is State Senators who are actually willing to serve and to fight for the people they represent.

Yes, there is a need for respectfulness in law-making, but it cannot and should not come at the expense of actual democracy. We can't leave the truth unsaid just because it might ruffle some feathers. Nor can we allow Governor Heineman to bully the legislature just because he does so gently and behind-the-scenes - which is precisely what we've seen in the 2007 legislative session on a whole host of issues. Probably the only notable exception was the Omaha Public Schools debate in which it was Heineman himself who "undermined the legislative process."

Funny how the World-Herald never took him to task for that. Nor did any state senator but Ernie Chambers, whose "bombast and displays of egotism" have protected the people of Nebraska - especially the voters he represents - from any number of state actions that would have been directly against their interests.

Doing what's right and what's best for the state of Nebraska should not provide our state senators an excuse to forget the voters who elected them. Compromise is essential, but it's fundamentally undemocratic to expect senators to work always towards consensus. And, damn it, in a democracy there is a time and a place - maybe even a duty - to raise a little hell ... even if it is inconvenient for Heineman, the World-Herald, and those state senators whose hypocrisy and double-speak are thereby revealed.

It is not partisanship to do the job you were elected to do. There is no betrayal in having some balls and refusing to play this game of go-along-get-along that puts Gov. Heineman in the driver's seat working with a legislature over which he - constitutionally - has no authority.

This isn't about any single issue. This isn't about who's being more partisan, the Democrats or the Republicans. This is about the principles underlying our democracy - especially the separation of powers to which Heineman has displayed clear hostility while most state senators have demonstrated unforgiveable complicity - like so many puppets on so few strings.

This is one of those instances where, if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention. The problem is that noone is paying attention - not the press, not our state senators, not the public. Dave Heineman, however, knows damn well the power now at his disposal and - unchecked - he's going to be having his way with this state for years to come.

That might be what the World-Herald wants to see. But, how about you?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this article.
There are so many puppets at the statehouse...some are naive, some are afraid of losing their jobs so they go along, others are beholden to election money...I do hope we do not lose our sense of lively debate and exchange totally. It seems as though partisan politics and religious right agendas are ruling this state, and the people are afraid. Dems would do a great service by showing the way in which dissent is viewed as a right to express oneself...not an invitation for a firing, a reprisal, a demotion or a bad label. Go for it.

Anonymous Luke Peterson said...

This was the issue of enacting term limits and so far the debate about what will happen to the Unicameral, as an institution, has proven to be slightly true in my opinion. I am a staunch proponent of the one legislative branch for Nebraska but I was, and am now even more convinced that my concern that the partisan players are indeed making the official non-partisan legislature an arena full of divisiveness.

However I want to raise an issue here with the lobbyists who hover around the rotunda like a flock of vultures waiting for the State Senators to come out so then the agenda for the day could be passed or killed. When I did my personal advocacy for LB 475, I guess you could have called me a lobbyist because I wanted to talk to Sen. Tom Carlson (the senator from my Legislative District that I still vote in) and I noticed the amount of lobbyists there in the capitol. I don't know nor am I certain that the number of lobbyists has increased since term limits have been enacted however it still frightens me that unelected persons with no oversight from the populace in this state can and certainly do dictate to our respected representatives in the Unicameral to bully them into submission towards their cause, albeit harmful or helpful.

This term gets tossed around a lot that is suppose to characterize our state government, the "Dictameral." Well if that is such the case, then who is behind the dictating if our State Senators won't stand up and be our voice?


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