Capitol View - One for the Senators, One For the Voters

By J.L. Schmidt - Statehouse Correspondent, The Nebraska Press Association

The major obstacle to Nebraska lawmakers receiving a larger salary is a basic misunderstanding of just how hard they work for the $12,000 that has been the going rate since 1988.

There’s a misperception that state senators only work 90 days one year and 60 days the next year of the two-year legislative session. Those 90 days start in January and often drag through mid-May in the “long session” and at least into early April in the “short session.” But the work of being a state senator carries on all year.

On the official list of senatorial responsibilities are interim studies which fill in the “off-season” and require travel to Lincoln or other areas of the state for those interim hearings which help senators get the information they need for issues and proposals with which they might deal during regular session. They receive a per diem for travel and living expenses … but have you bought a tank of gas lately? The money doesn’t go as far as it did.

Unofficially, lawmakers have to deal with constituent concerns. Many have advisory groups with which they meet regularly in their districts. Then there’s the host of social events and speaking engagements ranging from ribbon cuttings to Eagle Scout recognitions and a number of “required attendance events” in-between.

Bottom line: Low pay has greatly limited the pool of Nebraskans who can afford to serve: The wealthy; independent business owners and farmers and ranchers who can afford to be away from work; some retired people. It IS hard work and a FULL TIME job. The pay  increase to $22,500 isn’t enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Then comes the idea of term limits, on the books since 2006 after Nebraskans bought into the idea that this would be a great way to “get rid” of certain senators with whom they had become disgruntled. Supporters say they were simply breaking down the “good ol’ boy” network and all of its secret deals and back-room negotiations. I am not sure which Nebraska Legislature has all that going on … but, again, perception is reality for some folks.

Opponents argue that limiting senators to two terms hamstrings the process and gives the power to the lobbyists and special interests. In some cases, a senator’s office may be staffed by someone with more experience in the legislative process than the person who has been elected to represent the people and push the red or green voting button. 

It takes at least one term to understand the system, establish a rhythm – to be a player, if you will. That leaves four years for a senator to accomplish anything if they get re-elected. Expanding term limits to three terms (12 years) makes more sense. Abolishing term limits altogether makes the most sense.

When did the will of a few people, the supporters of term limits, replace the will of the majority of the electorate who simply want to go to the ballot box and exercise term limits by voting for the legislative candidate of their choice?

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