Term Limits for Nebraska State Senators: a Challenge to the Future Effectiveness of the Nebraska State Legislature

JurisdictionNebraska,United States
CitationVol. 40
Publication year2022

40 Creighton L. Rev. 3. TERM LIMITS FOR NEBRASKA STATE SENATORS: A CHALLENGE TO THE FUTURE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE NEBRASKA STATE LEGISLATURE

Creighton Law Review


Vol. 40


DOUG BEND(fn*)


INTRODUCTION

In 2000, Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting Nebraska state senators to two consecutive four-year terms.(fn1) Of the forty-nine state senators, twenty,(fn2) including the speaker(fn3) and nine committee chairmen,(fn4) were not permitted to seek re-election in 2006.(fn5) Another sixteen will be forced from office in 2008.(fn6) The remaining state senators will be term limited by 2012.(fn7) This Article examines the possible consequences of the term limits and argues that while they were well-intentioned, they will likely harm the effectiveness of the Nebraska State Legislature.

Part I provides an overview of the structure of the Nebraska State Legislature, the responsibilities of state senators, and the term limits constitutional amendment approved by the Nebraska voters during the 2000 election. Part II then examines the drawbacks and advantages of term limits. Part III outlines the legislative and legal efforts to repeal the term limits and the vocal opposition to these efforts. Finally, Part IV recommends that the Nebraska State Legislature and voters should increase the salary of state senators, extend the term limits from two to three terms, and enhance the public financing for serious candidates to prevent some of the detrimental effects of the term limits.

I. AN OVERVIEW OF THE NEBRASKA STATE LEGISLATURE AND THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF STATE SENATORS

The Nebraska State Legislature is unique in that it is the only state unicameral(fn8) in the country.(fn9) It is also "the only nonpartisan legislature in the nation."(fn10) However, "[p]arty affiliation . . . still is maintained, and legislators participate in party functions, but parties do not control the selection of the leadership or the day-to-day operations of the body."(fn11) Instead of a split between Democrats and Republicans, often there is a division "between rural and urban interests."(fn12) Also, coalitions are more likely to be "based on personality or ideology rather than party lines."(fn13) The party affiliations of the candidates are not on the ballots.(fn14) Instead, "[t]he top two candidates in the primary election proceed to the general election. The candidate with the most votes in the general election is seated."(fn15)

In odd-numbered years, the legislative session lasts ninety days, and in even-numbered years, it lasts sixty days.(fn16) There are forty-nine state senators, each representing approximately 35,000 people.(fn17) They are elected to four-year terms and are paid $12,000 per year.(fn18) In addition to their salaries, state senators are reimbursed for their travel expenses to each session of the legislature(fn19) and are "allowed one administrative assistant and one legislative aide."(fn20) The chairs of the major committees also "hire one committee counsel and [a] committee clerk."(fn21)

Prior to the 2006 elections, thirty-two of the senators were Republican and fifteen were Democrats.(fn22) Seventeen of the senators were sixty-five or older and five were younger than forty.(fn23) Not surprisingly, thirteen of the forty-nine state senators were farmers and ranchers.(fn24) The average state senator who was forced out of office for the 2006 elections because of term limits was first elected or appointed in approximately 1993.(fn25) However, this tenure is much longer than the average service of Nebraska state senators. In fact, "[o]n average, one-fourth of the membership turns over every two years," and "[t]he average senator in Nebraska spends only seven years in office."(fn26)

Some of the tasks of a state senator include visiting with constituents, participating in floor debates and committee hearings, and developing legislation.(fn27) The only requirements to be a state senator are that one must be at least twenty-one years old and live in the district the senator represents for at least one year before being elected.(fn28)

In 2000, Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting Nebraska state senators to two consecutive four-year terms.(fn29) The text of the amendment provides as follows:

(1) No person shall be eligible to serve as a member of the Legislature for four years next after the expiration of two consecutive terms regardless of the district represented. (2) Service prior to January 1, 2001, as a member of the Legislature shall not be counted for the purpose of calculating consecutive terms in subsection (1) of this section. (3) For the purpose of this section, service in office for more than one half a term shall be deemed service for a term.(fn30)

Including Nebraska, fifteen states have term limits for their state legislators.(fn31) The following chart provides the number of years a state legislator is allowed to serve in each of these states:

State House Limit Senate Limit

Maine 8 8

California(fn32) 6 8

Colorado 8 8

Arkansas 6 8

Michigan 6 8

Florida 8 8

Ohio 8 8

South Dakota 8 8

Montana 8 8

State House Limit Senate Limit

Arizona(fn33) 8 8

Missouri(fn34) 8 8

Oklahoma(fn35) 12 12

Nebraska n/a 8

Louisiana(fn36) 12 12

Nevada(fn37) 12 12

At first glance of this chart, it might seem to indicate that Nebraska's limit on state senators serving only eight years is in line with that of most other states that have term limits.(fn38) However, because Nebraska is the only unicameral, it is the only state where lawmakers who are forced out of one chamber because of term limits cannot "take their expertise to the other chamber."(fn39) Instead, that expertise is lost once that state legislator is no longer eligible to run for the state senate. In contrast, a state house member in Arizona after eight years can serve in the state senate for eight years, and then after being term limited in the state senate, she can once again run for a seat in the state house, thereby perpetuating her service in the state legislature.(fn40)

Six other states, Arkansas, California, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, and Oklahoma, have a somewhat similar situation to Nebraska because the term limits in those states bar lawmakers from returning to the same chamber after they have served their limit.(fn41) For example, in Oklahoma, "the term limits restriction applies to combined time in both chambers."(fn42) Thus, as is the case in Nebraska, once state legislators reach the limit of twelve years, they are unable to take their expertise to the other chamber.(fn43) However, because state legislators can serve twelve years in either chamber, they can stay in office four years longer than the state senators in Nebraska.

In California, the state's lifetime term limit provision prevents state legislators from switching back and forth, as they are term limited in each chamber.(fn44) That being said, an individual could still serve fourteen years (six in the house and eight in the senate) before being forced out of office.(fn45) While it is true that term-limited senators in Nebraska could run again for their seat once they have sat out for an election cycle, they are initially forced out of the state legislature much sooner than anywhere else in the country.

II. THE BENEFITS AND DISADVANTAGES OF TERM LIMITS

This section first outlines the benefits of term limits, such as replacing career politicians with citizen legislators who have fresh ideas. It then examines some of the disadvantages of term limits and the concerns of preventing individuals from voting for term-limited incumbents.

A. THE BENEFITS OF TERM LIMITS: FRESH IDEAS AND APPROACHES

Supporters of Nebraska's term limits claim they are necessary because "entrenched legislators had lost touch with their constituents, had become beholden to a narrow group of special interests, and pursued careerism at the expense of the public good."(fn46) Term limits are intended to avoid the side effects of having state legislatures run by "highly ambitious and self-serving" career politicians(fn47) and to "eliminate the 'good ol' boy' system'" which is "rife with back-room deals and open to corruption."(fn48) Instead, term limits provide the opportunity for more ordinary citizens, who are more responsive to the needs of the common citizen, to run for public office.(fn49)

Advocates of term limits contend that they are the only effective way to ensure a responsive legislature because incumbents are virtually guaranteed victory during re-election.(fn50) That is, term limits are particularly needed in the current political environment where "[t]he technological and information tools now available, combined with more consistent and predictable partisan voting patterns, enhance the capacity of existing officeholders to entrench themselves through the self-interested design of democratic institutions."(fn51) Thus, term limits are needed to counter the pattern of legislative districts consisting of safe seats with very few competitive elections.(fn52) Term limits put an end to this harmful trend by forcibly ensuring fresh faces with new ideas in the state legislature.(fn53)

Although it will take several elections to fully evaluate the effect of term limits on the competitiveness of elections in Nebraska, the early signs seem...

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