LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers wrapped up an often difficult and contentious 2017 session on a quiet note Tuesday.
The day included thank-yous from Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk and congratulations from Gov. Pete Ricketts.
But there were echoes of the year’s division and bitterness as well.
Veteran State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha proclaimed the session the worst of his legislative career, which has spanned more than 40 years.
Ricketts praised the Legislature for its accomplishments, especially the work to close a budget gap that grew to $1.1 billion through June 30, 2019.
He noted that lawmakers had passed two budget bills, one that addressed the shortfall in the current fiscal year and another setting the budget for the next two years.
“That was a major accomplishment that we were able to get that budget balanced without raising taxes,” he said. “We demonstrated Nebraska grit.”
But Ricketts said lawmakers had not gotten the job done on taxes.
Legislative Bill 461, which incorporated the governor’s income and agricultural land property tax proposals, stalled at the first stage of debate.
Ricketts vowed to keep working with legislative leaders to build consensus on that package before the next legislative session.
“We need to continue to work on how we’re going to provide that tax relief to our Nebraska families,” he said.
Among the session’s accomplishments, Ricketts pointed to passage of bills easing some occupational licensure restrictions.
He noted bills merging the Departments of Roads and Aeronautics into a new Department of Transportation and giving the State Department of Veterans’ Affairs responsibility for the veterans homes.
Ricketts also highlighted passage of a pair of “pro-life” bills, one allowing for “Celebrate Life” license plates and the other making information about perinatal hospice programs more available.
Scheer called the session an “interesting” one during which the 18 new members challenged the status quo.
“There have been points in this session when the 90 days might have seemed as an eternity, others where 90 might have seemed way too short,” he said.
The session actually ended on the 86th legislative day, four days earlier than originally planned.
Scheer praised lawmakers for the quality of debate during the session, an outcome encouraged by changes in the process.
Using his power as speaker, he scheduled controversial bills for three hours of debate but did not bring them back for additional time unless the sponsor could show that the bill would advance.
“We began to have real discussions on the merits of bills instead of spending time on procedural maneuvers to run out the clock,” Scheer said.
Even though three major tax bills stalled, for example, he said the bills gave lawmakers time to have a “purposeful debate” about the state’s tax structure.
But Chambers said the session ended as it began, harkening back to the first day, when conservative Republicans claimed leadership positions over moderates and Democrats, and to the 30 days of partisan debate over rules.
He chastised colleagues for sustaining Ricketts’ budget vetoes that cut funding for services to disabled, elderly and poor Nebraskans.
He also criticized them for sustaining the veto of a bill that would have allowed felons to vote after finishing their sentences.
“The session was a virtual shambles, and I was very upset with how things were done,” Chambers said.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus also said he saw echoes of the first day in the budget override votes. He said there were senators who voted as a bloc against the overrides but did not speak during the debate.
However, Schumacher said the session represented a good introduction for the freshman class.
The session started with 17 new senators. One more was added after Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion resigned.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the session had its accomplishments but also left work to be done.
“It was a tough session,” he said.