LINCOLN — Only a couple of weeks after Deb Fischer took office as a Nebraska state senator, it became clear she wouldn't be a bashful back-bencher.
That's when the freshman, in defense of the one-room schools in her Sand Hills district, rose from her seat to challenge a ruling by the Speaker of the Legislature.
In the pecking order of state lawmakers, that's sort of like a kindergartner thumbing her nose at the senior class president on the first day of school.
“She was shooting rockets that we didn't even know existed,” said a fellow senator and friend who was also elected in 2004, Mike Flood of Norfolk.
Seven years later, Fischer, the 60-year-old daughter of a former state roads director, is now one of the most influential senators in the Nebraska Legislature.
Her tenacious and direct style has drawn comparisons to former U.S. Rep. Virginia Smith, R-Neb., and to leading state legislators of the past such as Terry Carpenter of Scottsbluff and Loran Schmit of Bellwood.
Friends say she is bright, goal-driven and tirelessly well-prepared, a master at counting votes and forming coalitions. Nicknamed “The Queen” and “General,” Fischer is viewed as a pragmatic conservative who opposes higher taxes, defends landowner rights and supports the agricultural constituents she represents.
“She'll fight harder than just about anyone in here,” said State Sen. Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, a friend who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“Because she pushes things so hard, it might cost her,” said Heidemann, referring to those who might “vote red” — no — just because it's her bill.
Fischer's legislative career will be over after 2012 because of term limits, and she has been mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate. Others, however, wonder if she has the interest and financial wherewithal to challenge the already-announced and well-connected Republican candidates, Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg.
Her pro-ag stands on water issues often put Fischer at odds with environmental and conservation groups, who say she doesn't represent the recreational interests in her own district, which includes the Niobrara River and Snake River Falls.
Fischer said her reputation as being ruthless is overblown, “but it helps.”
“She doesn't soft-sell her positions,” said Mark Brohman, a former lobbyist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and now head of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, from which Fischer is trying to take money to fund water projects.
But even ideological foes admire her ability to build relationships with powerful senators and lobby groups, to work the floor during debate and to strongly articulate her views.
“She's one of the most talented and effective senators in the body, maybe in the history of the body,” said Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, a Democrat who often is at odds with Fischer's views.
Those skills will be tested this week. The Legislature is scheduled to begin debate on her ambitious proposal to spend an additional $140 million a year on highway construction over the next 20 years.
Legislative Bill 84 represents a sea change in the funding of road construction, not by the traditional method of tax increases but by earmarking a portion of the state sales tax, about $140 million annually.
It's been billed as “concrete versus kids,” because such a move would divert money away from K-12 schools, higher education and human services.
Fischer said Nebraska needs to either address a looming funding crisis in maintaining and building good roads, or tell citizens it isn't a top priority.
“Roads are different. It takes long-term planning and commitment. We can't put this off any longer,” Fischer said.
Budget cuts this year in education, public safety and social services should guarantee that there is enough money in two years to fund her plan when it goes into effect, she said.
“I'm looking forward to this week. This session is an opportunity to get back to the core duties of government.”
It will be a hard sell for some senators and even Gov. Dave Heineman, who said he agrees with Fischer 95 percent of the time.
The roads issue deserves debate, Heineman said, but it's unclear whether the economic picture will improve enough by 2013 to skim off $140 million in revenue.
Fischer has done her homework on the issue, having conducted hearings statewide and amassed a coalition of supporters that includes chambers of commerce, truck drivers, highway contractors, urban cities and rural villages.
Like a highway under construction, Fischer's life has taken a few detours, but the destination was always politics.
She grew up around the State Capitol, where her father, the late Jerry Strobel, spent his career in the State Roads Department and directed the agency from 1987 to 1991.
Fischer planned to get a college degree in political science, go to law school, then get involved in politics. Instead, she fell in love with Sand Hills rancher Bruce Fischer. They married and raised three sons on the windswept Sunny Slope Ranch 30 miles from the nearest town, Valentine.
Instead of learning the law, she learned how to ride a horse.
Her first public service job was on the board for the area's one-room country school. She served on statewide boards for the Nebraska Cattlemen and State School Boards Association, and on committees that revised formulas for state aid to schools and screened candidates for judgeships.
She rejected suggestions that she run for Legislature in 1996, saying her boys were too young. In 2004, she emerged from a seven-candidate field to win the general election by 128 votes.
“She represents folks up here very well. We, at times, don't get that in Lincoln,” said Jerry Adamson, a rancher and member of the Cherry County Board.
Heidemann, the Appropriations Committee chairman, calls Fischer his closest friend. They sit side by side in the legislative chamber at their request.
Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, which oversees water and environmental issues, said Fischer isn't afraid of controversial issues.
“If you're going to come after her, you'd better know your stuff,” said Carol Carlson, a life-long friend and classmate from Lincoln Southeast High School.
Two bills introduced this year are prime examples of Fischer's willingness to tackle divisive issues head-on.
One bill, which proposed to divert money from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, raised the ire of groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Sierra Club. The other bill would have eventually eliminated cities' ability to charge occupation taxes on telephone bills, which is a major source of revenue for Omaha and Lincoln. Cash-strapped municipalities vehemently objected.
Fischer ended up paring back the occupation tax bill, and a compromise is being sought on the Environmental Trust bill.
The fight over the roads bill promises to be even more controversial. .
Fischer said she's willing to take the heat. Alternatives to her plan — such as raising gas taxes or licensing fees — are either politically unreasonable or don't raise enough money, she said.
If nothing is done, it will cost more later, she said.
“There are people in here who get it. They understand that roads are a responsibility of government.”
And if the state doesn't have the money down the road, she said, lawmakers will fund “kids instead of concrete.”
As for higher office, Fischer said that will have to wait.
“Are people talking to me all the time? Yes. But I'm not going to miss a day of this year's session. It's too important for the people of the state.”
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