Click here to read more about each departing state senator.
LINCOLN — You could call them the guinea pigs of legislative term limits.
They are six state senators who had to quickly step into leadership roles in 2006 and 2008 after only a couple of years in office.
When term limits took effect in those election years, 35 state senators left office — nearly two-thirds of the 49-member Nebraska Legislature. A combined 452 years of experience left with them.
Previously, legislators had to pay their dues at the end of the political bench for several years before even thinking of running to head a committee or to run the Legislature as speaker. It was an unwritten rule that new senators didn't even speak on the floor of the Legislature until their second year.
While term-limit supporters wanted the old guard and its entrenched ways tossed out and new lawmakers with fresh ideas moved in, foes of term limits worried that inexperienced lawmakers would be dominated by the governor and lobbyists and that their lack of institutional knowledge would lead to bad laws.
The jury's still out on some of those questions, but a strong group of leaders emerged among the newcomers that has exercised its independence in recent years.
Back in 2006, some senators had to step up. And six relatively new state senators, like astronauts on the moon, made the leap.
"People were looking at us. We had to prove we could do it," said State Sen. Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, chairman of the Appropriations Committee for six years.
As the final gavel nears on the 2012 session, the final session for these six leaders, most observers say they have performed admirably, despite having less experience than their predecessors. Their departures will prompt another leadership turnover next year in powerful positions such as speaker and head of the Appropriations Committee.
One veteran State Capitol watcher said "dynamic" institutions such as Nebraska's unicameral Legislature find a way to adapt, even if the leaders lack decades of battle scars.
"There are so many moving parts with staffers and lobbyists ... institutional knowledge does not go out the door," said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist and chief of staff to former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.
"No matter who leaves, there's plenty of high-quality people left behind," he said.
Lincoln lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, however, said the six had to learn on the run and probably took a year or two to acquire the nuances of floor debate or running a committee.
"Capable people will perform capably. But I think experience helps capable people perform better," Radcliffe said. "I think they would all say they would have been better in their first two years had they had more experience."
This year's session could conclude as early as Thursday or could stretch into next week.
It will be remembered foremost as the year of the children, in which lawmakers sought to turn around a struggling effort to privatize the state's child-welfare system.
But it will also see the departure of a tightknit group of lawmakers first elected in 2004, who took on leadership roles early.
Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk: He was 31 years old when he assumed the Legislature's top spot of speaker in 2006. His previous assignment was enrollment and review chairman, a post reserved for the youngest and newest senator. Flood earned high marks for arbitrating some of the toughest issues faced by the Legislature during his tenure, including embryonic stem-cell research, collective bargaining and the location of the Nebraska State Fair. During last fall's special session on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, Flood engineered a major compromise, resolving concerns about its proposed path through the Nebraska Sand Hills that had drawn national attention.
Heidemann: A farmer, he became the body's top budget watcher the same year, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He is seen as a straightforward, straight-shooting chairman who has held together a politically diverse committee. He stood firm this year on his concerns that cutting taxes as deeply as the governor proposed would jeopardize future budgets.
Sen. Deb Fischer: This rancher from Valentine and daughter of a former State Roads director was handed the reins of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee in 2006. She resolved a nagging issue — delays in highway construction — by persuading senators to overturn decades of tradition and earmark a portion of state general funds for roads.
Sen. Chris Langemeier: The real estate broker and appraiser from Schuyler took over the Natural Resources Committee in 2008. He oversaw battles over water rights, hog lagoons, wind energy and rerouting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Sen. Abbie Cornett: This former Omaha police officer became head of the Business and Labor Committee in 2006, then assumed the top spot on the Revenue Committee in 2008. Her work has helped modernize the state's business incentives to attract computer data centers such as Yahoo, expand municipal economic development tools to spark construction of the Ralston Arena, and headed off a roadblock slowing construction of a new headquarters at the U.S. Strategic Command.
Sen. Rich Pahls: A retired Millard school administrator, he won the chairmanship of the Banking and Insurance Committee in 2006 and was a steady hand overseeing two of the state's leading industries.
Omaha Sen. Gwen Howard, another member of the Class of 2004, never headed a committee but is viewed as a key player on the child-welfare issue. A former welfare case manager, she educated colleagues about the system and what had and hadn't worked in the past.
Two others will leave this year because of term limits: Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton and Ellsworth Sen. LeRoy Louden.
Fulton will be remembered for his work on the Appropriations Committee, in opposing abortion and his early questioning of the Keystone XL pipeline route. Louden, elected 10 years ago, served two years as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. This year he won passage of bills to control prairie dogs and permit mountain lion hunting.
Flood and others who assumed leadership roles said that because they were in the spotlight, they worked extra hard to become familiar with the issues.
Early on, the group could learn insider tricks from long-serving senators such as David Landis, Ron Raikes, Chris Beutler and Ernie Chambers.
Four rural senators from the class of 2004 — Fischer, Heidemann, Flood and Langemeier — tightened their bond early, in an unsuccessful fight to save one-room schools.
Flood, who bought a radio station while in law school, said that in his first staff meeting as speaker, his message was, "We're not going to screw this up," despite his inexperience or young age.
He met regularly with former speakers of the Legislature to learn the ropes. He posted photos of past speakers in his office to remind him the job was a "duty to the Unicameral. It's not partisan, it's about being fair and doing the right thing."
"I wanted to uphold the traditions of the Legislature," Flood said.
The Legislature has become more assertive and independent from the governor in the past couple of years, and members of the Class of 2004 were at the forefront.
Gov. Dave Heineman was not a fan, for example, of Fischer's roads bill, but she amassed such a coalition of support for the idea that colleagues labeled her "general."
This year, Heidemann stood firm in insisting the state couldn't afford more than $50 million in tax cuts. Eventually the governor and other lawmakers came around.
"I'm a long-term guy," Heidemann said. He saw an estimated $600 million state budget gap looming down the road, and the larger the tax cuts, the larger that gap would grow, based on slow economic growth.
"I didn't want to add to that challenge. I really hope I'm wrong."
This year, lawmakers overturned Heineman's veto on paying $2.5 million in claims for child-welfare providers. Despite other promised vetoes, they have advanced proposals to allow cities to increase local sales taxes by a half-cent and to resume taxpayer-funded prenatal care for illegal immigrants.
"At the end of the day, we did do the state's business," Flood said.
Since 2004, lawmakers have adopted landmark legislation introduced by Flood to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, toughened up rules on repeat drunken drivers, changed the method of execution to lethal injection, set the stage for construction of new expressways and highways, and passed two packages of tax cuts promoted by Heineman.
And despite the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, the state budget was balanced without a tax increase.
"Ours was a good run," Heidemann said, "no doubt about it."
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Impact: As chairwoman of Revenue Committee, pushed to pass bills that led to current construction of Ralston Arena, community redevelopment and incentives for huge computer data centers, including the $1.2 billion “Project Edge” eyeing Kearney and a $200 million “Project Photon” looking at Sarpy County.
Thoughts: “We got hit with the worst recession since the Great Depression. We came out of it really well.”
What's next: Hang out with three children, including twin daughters. Work as president and chairwoman of advocacy group Alliance for BioTherapeutics. Would consider running for another political office.
Impact: Ran tight ship as head of Transpor-tation and Telecommunications Committee. Championed bills to earmark part of state sales tax revenue for new highway construction — a break from longtime state policy — and use state lottery funds for water projects. Also won limits on city occupation taxes.
Thoughts: “We were really fortunate. If you had leadership qualities, you were able to use them.”
What's next: Seeking Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Impact: Arbitrator of some of the Legislature's biggest issues, including stem-cell research, moving the State Fair and collective bargaining. Championed bills on lethal injection, banning abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy and toughening penalties on repeat drunken drivers.
Thoughts: “I feel like I've earned a doctorate in state governance. Every member of our class has contributed and shown they can take on tough issues.”
What's next: Running his radio stations and driving his sons to soccer practice. Interested in further public service, either attorney general or governor, but hasn't decided.
Impact: Conservative voice in balancing state budgets, pushed for anti-abortion legislation and was one of the first to question the Keystone XL pipeline route.
Thoughts: “It used to make me mad. There are all these good ideas, but you can't afford everything.”
What's next: Spend more time with family — he has six children and helps coach soccer, baseball and football. Would like to continue in public service, possibly making another run for state treasurer. (He ran unsuccessfully in 2010.)
Hometown: Elk Creek
Impact: Major architect of state budget as chairman of Appropriations Committee. Kept politically diverse committee unified.
Thoughts: “This job doesn't go away in the summer. There is a sacrifice to be here, and people don't realize the sacrifice of family back home.”
What's next: Running for University of Nebraska Board of Regents. Headed home to help brother, Les, run the family farm.
Impact: “Watch-dog” of child welfare system as a former welfare case manager.
Thoughts: “I'm really glad I could be a part of the (child-welfare changes) this year. The real work will be to make sure they are enforced.”
What's next: Running for Democratic nomination for 2nd Congressional District.
Impact: Oversaw legislation addressing water disputes in the Republican and Platte River valleys, opened up Nebraska to wind-energy development and dealt with the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline. Chairman of the committee that redrew state election districts last year.
Thoughts: “We were a very committed group. I think we all put serving ahead of our jobs, and I think we're all going to pay for that.”
What's next: Getting back to private life but hasn't ruled out future public service.
Impact: Got a long-delayed state veterans cemetery built in Alliance, won adoption of an occupation tax to help build tourism facilities and helped win passage of a separate state tourism agency.
Thoughts: “It's a young man's game. You've got to have some zip, get up and go.”
What's next: Resume ranching.
Impact: Led the Banking and Insurance Committee the past six years — besides “cattle and corn,” two of the biggest industries in the state.
Thoughts: “It was a unique group. We all just happened to be here at the right time.”
What's next: He said he has been encouraged to run for City Council or county board but is undecided.