A new survey of the 50 state legislatures shows that Nebraska ranks No. 1 in two areas.
The Nebraska Legislature has the highest percentage of lawmakers with ag-related occupations. Last year, it also was No. 1 in the percentage of millennials (legislators under age 35).
On average across the 50 states, legislators from agriculture-related occupations make up 5 percent of the memberships. In Nebraska, it’s 22 percent.
That makes Nebraska a leader even in this ag-centric region. In South Dakota and Wyoming, it’s 17 percent; Iowa 14 percent; Kansas 7 percent and Colorado 5 percent.
After studying national numbers, the Stateline news service concluded that compared to past decades, “farmers now hold few seats and have little voice in legislatures — even in farm-belt states.”
Nebraska provides a notable exception. Not only do nine state senators (including a veterinarian/rancher) list agriculture as their full- or part-time occupation, the Legislature includes an agricultural sales manager, a retired farm co-op manager and three rural bankers with knowledge of the state’s ag economy.
One of those bankers is Sen. Matt Williams from Gothenburg. “I grew up working on our family farm and continue to have ownership in ag land today,” Williams told The World-Herald. “As a rural banker I’ve worked with farmers and ranchers on financing, budgeting, creating cash flows, marketing, and dealing with crop insurance and government programs.”
Sen. Dan Watermeier, a farmer from southeastern Nebraska, says he’s encouraged by how many lawmakers from Omaha and Lincoln demonstrate an awareness of agriculture’s importance to the state’s economy. Sen. Al Davis, a Hyannis rancher, points to the small size of the Legislature as a plus. With only 49 members, rural and urban lawmakers are able to get to know each other and build positive working relationships.
As for millennial-lawmakers, 16 percent of Nebraska state senators fell into that category last year, compared with a national average of only 5 percent. Among Nebraska’s neighbors, South Dakota counted 10 percent, Kansas 7 percent, Iowa 4 percent and Colorado 3 percent.
Millennial lawmakers can draw on their life experiences, such as raising a young family and dealing with early-career issues, that can better inform legislative debate, Sen. Beau McCoy, a 35-year-old lawmaker from Omaha, told Stateline.
The Nebraska Legislature has stood out in recent years for opportunities provided to capable younger members, too. In 2007, then-Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk was tapped as speaker at age 31 and won praise for his effective leadership.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha was selected as Appropriations Committee chairman in 2013 at age 33. Mello notes that in conversations with legislators from other states, Nebraska lawmakers regularly hear that “almost everything is decided by partisan outcomes or seniority-based outcomes.” In Nebraska, he said, the Legislature “doesn’t look at (a younger) age as a disability.”
Such openness is encouraged by both the Legislature’s nonpartisan tradition and empowering individual lawmakers.
It’s fitting for Nebraska’s Legislature to have a sizable contingent with agricultural expertise, and it’s encouraging to see younger lawmakers given appropriate opportunities. Both make for a stronger Legislature and serve the state well.