LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature's shift to a more moderate, independent-minded and urban body was more evident than ever as lawmakers elected new leaders
Topping the list was the tapping of a Democrat for the first time in 64 years to head the influential Appropriations Committee.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who has clashed in the past with Gov. Dave Heineman, will head the panel that draws up the state budget. He narrowly won the job in a 25-24 vote over North Platte Sen. Tom Hansen, a Republican.
A Republican, Sen. Greg Adams of York, 60, was elected, unopposed, as speaker of the Legislature, succeeding Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who was term-limited. Although they belong to the same party, Adams has not always seen eye to eye with Heineman.
For other legislative leadership roles, votes trended strongly toward lawmakers who also have differed with the governor's staunchly conservative agenda.
The unique, one-house — and officially nonpartisan — unicameral Legislature has 30 Republicans, 17 Democrats and two independents, but Democrats will outnumber Republicans, by 8 to 7, in leadership of the 14 standing committees and two top leadership posts.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, an independent, won re-election as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a Democrat who was re-elected chairman of the Business and Labor Committee, said the votes were an affirmation of the independent streak begun last spring when lawmakers overrode vetoes by the governor of bills that allow cities, with a vote of the people, to increase local sales tax and provide prenatal services for children of illegal immigrants.
“This was sort of an untethering of the Legislature from the executive branch, which is good for the people,” said Lathrop, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2014.
Mello, 33, is the first Omahan to lead Appropriations since 1957, back when it was called the Budget Committee.
Mello, who was just elected to a second term in his South Omaha district, said the Legislature picks its leadership based on personality rather than politics.
He said his job will be to find consensus within the Legislature and then see what consensus can be found with the governor, whose budget proposal will be revealed Tuesday.
“We're going to agree on some issues and we're going to disagree on others,” Mello said. “That happens with everybody.”
Adams pledged, as speaker, to pursue “an agenda of fairness.” A retired schoolteacher, he is known for using a whiteboard to explain complicated issues.
The senator said he didn't see the leadership votes “as a D or an R issue,” but one of who is best-qualified.
“The body chose the person they wanted to lead the committee,” Adams said.
He added that his relationship with the governor was good and respectful, even though they “didn't agree a lot.”
Adams and Mello were members of a coalition that overrode the governor on a bill providing publicly funded prenatal care for the unborn babies of illegal immigrant women.
The leadership votes came a month after Mark Fahleson, state chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, warned Republicans in the Legislature against “secretly” voting for Democrats, instead of Republicans, to lead state legislative committees. Doing so, Fahleson said, would undermine the governor's agenda of “smaller, more efficient state government.”
Interjecting partisan politics into the selection of legislative leaders, which is done by secret ballot, has backfired in the past, said veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, and that happened again Wednesday.
Fahleson did not respond to a phone call, but he posted a comment on his Facebook page decrying the lack of transparency in the “secret ballot” leadership votes.
The leadership elections came as lawmakers opened their 90-day session.
Ten new senators were sworn in, and Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha returned to the north Omaha seat that he had held for 38 years, until term limits forced him to exit in 2009.
Chambers, now 75, skipped — as is his custom — the ceremonial start of the session.
But he arrived, wearing his trademark short-sleeved sweatshirt, in time to be sworn in with other just-elected lawmakers. The fiery senator did not address the Legislature on Wednesday.
Chambers' return, along with the Legislature's moderate, more independent shift, are among the main story lines for the 2013 session. November's election reduced the ranks of GOP senators by three. Redistricting, resulting from the 2010 Census, eliminated one rural district, shifting it to the Gretna area.
Twenty-five of the Legislature's 49 senators now represent the state's urban enclaves of Omaha, Lincoln or Sarpy County.
Just how Wednesday's leadership elections will affect policy decisions is unclear, but it can't be good news for the agenda of Heineman, who has promised a bold plan of tax cuts, opposition to expansion of Medicaid and repeal of the prenatal bill.
Heineman, in a statement, said he looked forward to working with the new speaker and the Legislature “on the issues that are important to hardworking Nebraskans.”
But Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz, a Republican who typically backs the governor, predicted a tough debate ahead on Medicaid. “And,” he said, “I don't think we're going to see the budget just sail through.”
Mello, for instance, supports the Medicaid expansion, which is optional for states under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Heineman has said the expansion is unaffordable.
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Key leaders elected inthe Nebraska Legislature (*re-elected)
Speaker: Greg Adams of York
Chairman of the Executive Board: John Wightman of Lexington*
Agriculture Committee: Ken Schilz of Ogallala
Banking, Commerce and Insurance: Mike Gloor of Grand Island
Health and Human Services: Kathy Campbell of Lincoln*
Natural Resources: Tom Carlson of Holdrege
Revenue: Galen Hadley of Kearney
Appropriations: Heath Mello of Omaha
Business and Labor: Steve Lathrop of Omaha*
Education: Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids
General Affairs: Russ Karpisek of Wilber*
Government, Military and Veterans Affairs: Bill Avery of Lincoln*
Nebraska Retirement Systems: Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha*
Transportation and Telecommunications: Annette Dubas of Fullerton
Urban Affairs: Amanda McGill of Lincoln*
Judiciary: Brad Ashford of Omaha*
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