LINCOLN — One state senator predicts that this year’s legislative session will be a “knock-down, drag-out” fight like last year’s.

Another hopes that lawmakers have gotten to know each other well enough to reach common ground on major issues confronting Nebraska.

Yet a third calls it “anyone’s guess” how the session may go after it kicks off Wednesday.

“When you have 49 independent contractors, I don’t think there’s any certainty,” said State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who is serving his last year in the Nebraska Legislature.

Nebraska lawmakers will gather at the State Capitol on Wednesday to start their 60-day legislative session. The session is slated to wrap up in mid-April.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk said he expects the state’s budget shortfall and demands for tax cuts to dominate the session.

Gov. Pete Ricketts agreed, calling the budget and taxes the top issues facing the state.

He said he wants to work with lawmakers on balancing the budget without raising taxes and finding a combination of income and property tax cuts that can win enough votes to pass the Legislature.

The state faces a $200 million gap between projected revenues and estimated state spending needs for the two-year budget period that ends June 30, 2019.

Ricketts will unveil his budget proposals and other legislative initiatives during the State of the State speech on Jan. 10.

The bulk of the Legislature’s budget debate most likely will take place after late February, when the state’s official forecasting board updates its projections of tax revenues.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are facing conflicting and potentially costly demands for income and property tax cuts.

The tax issues look to pit urban interests against rural ones and business against agriculture. They also raise questions about the state’s ability to afford tax cuts when revenues already are lagging.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine what we can do when we’re talking about taking the budget down by $200 million,” said Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston.

Despite the concern about money issues, Scheer said other factors could affect the course of the session.

A more experienced group of lawmakers will be convening in Lincoln this year. Last year started with 17 of the 49 seats filled with first-year senators. Another newcomer joined mid-session, after Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion resigned.

The new session features only one new lawmaker, Sen. Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha, who was appointed over the summer to represent central Omaha.

Another factor this year will be how quickly lawmakers decide on rules for the session. Last year, lawmakers spent the first third of the 90-day session debating proposed changes to the filibuster rules, before deciding against making any changes.

Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, the Rules Committee chairman, and others said they don’t know of any major effort to change the rules so far.

Fellow Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz said she hopes that senators focus on other priorities, noting that she doesn’t believe any senators changed their views about the rules over the interim.

She also expressed hope, along with Riepe, that lawmakers have gotten to know each other better and will avoid the sometimes bitter partisan battles that marked the start and end of last year’s session.

“It’ll be a hard session, and hopefully people can maintain our good will,” Riepe said. “I hope we can approach this as adults.”

However, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said he looks for the session to feature more “knock-down, drag-out” clashes over policy issues.

Last year, clashes generally pitted the more conservative members of the Legislature against the more moderate or even liberal members. Most clashes ended in stalemates, as bill opponents used filibusters to stop controversial measures.

Scheer said he plans to use the same filibuster procedure this year as he did last year.

Every bill is allowed three hours of debate during first-round consideration. Scheer will not schedule the bill for more debate unless backers prove to him that the bill can advance, either with the 33 votes needed to end a filibuster or with a compromise.

He has said the procedure allowed for better debate than previous procedures, which required at least six hours of debate before lawmakers could vote to cut off the filibuster.

But Sens. Curt Friesen of Henderson and Burke Harr of Omaha said the change encourages filibusters by making them easier to undertake.

With Scheer’s procedure, the two said, senators do not have to worry that filibustering one bill will eat into the time needed to debate the bills they support.

The number of issues debated this year will be affected in part by how quickly lawmakers start naming bills as their official priorities for the session. Priority bills jump to the head of the line for debate.

Scheer said senators can start choosing priorities immediately. Until then, he plans to start debate with bills that advanced from committees last year and were held over.

Riepe said any bill without a priority designation will have a hard time getting brought up for debate, given the session’s shorter length.

“The 60-day session does have a different temperament to it,” Scheer said. “Everything moves at a different pace. There’s less time to drag things out.”

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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