Nebraskans will be asked to vote next month on four changes proposed to the state’s constitution: extending term limits, raising senators’ pay, allowing impeachment for campaign offenses, and protecting hunting, fishing and trapping rights.
Questions about amending the state constitution can be put before voters by the initiative process of collecting voter signatures. Or they can be presented by the Legislature. All the issues this year were put forward by the Legislature, and three of them would affect that body directly.
One of those is the term limits amendment, which would let senators serve three consecutive four-year terms instead of the current limit of two terms. Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, Neb. said it takes a while to learn to do the job effectively. “Early in your service in the Legislature – even if you’re elected, especially if you’re appointed – the executive branch has more power, the lobbyists have more influence, the political parties have more influence, and even our staff members in the Capitol -- they have experience on us. And so they have more influence,” Carlson said. “It takes a while to get more comfortable with issues and the whole process of legislation.”
Term limits forced out large numbers of Nebraska legislators starting in 2006. After that, some observers say Gov. Dave Heineman dominated lawmakers until this past year. That’s when, Carlson said, senators led by those who had gained more experience overrode the governor’s vetoes of prenatal care for children of illegal immigrants, local sales taxes increases with voter approval, and payments to providers who had gone unpaid during child welfare privatization.
Philip Blumel, president of US Term Limits, which supported the initiative campaign that got limits approved 12 years ago, disagrees term limits give more influence to lobbyists. He said lobbyists actually gain influence by building relationships with career politicians.
Blumel noted around the country, eight year term limits apply to governors, city council members, and others. “Eight year term limits are really time-tested and true,” he said. “Politicians never like them. They always say that they can’t learn in eight years. Of course the President of the United States can. A lot of these state legislators complain they can’t. But again, it’s not because they can’t figure out their job in eight years. It’s because they don’t want to leave in eight years. That’s the real reason,” Blumel said.
Another proposal affecting legislators would raise their pay from the current $12,000 a year to $22,500. Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh said a raise was last approved in 1988, and the proposed increase is designed to make up for inflation since then. He said the current pay limits the type of people who can afford to serve. “We have a Legislature that is predominantly retirees and maybe people in agriculture, and some attorneys – people who can adjust their schedules. But I think we’re excluding a lot of people from service with the very low level of compensation,” Lautenbaugh said.
The proposal has drawn some high-level opposition from Heineman, who cited the Legislature’s override of his veto on prenatal care. “I’m opposed to the pay raise because the Legislature decided to use taxpayer funds for illegals. It’s a fundamental financial principal that I think’s a bad idea. We ought to use taxpayer funds for legal Nebraska kids and legal Nebraska families,” Heineman said.
Lautenbaugh opposed overriding the governor’s veto, but he said it doesn’t make sense to oppose the pay raise based on that single vote.
Another proposed amendment would apply to legislators and other public officials as well. It would allow officials to be impeached, not only for crimes committed while in office, but for those committed while running for office.
The proposal stems from a case six years ago. Then-University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert was impeached for falsifying campaign statements, denying his opponent public campaign matching funds. Hergert was convicted based largely on signing a false report after being sworn in. Nebraska’s system of public campaign financing has since been found unconstitutional.
But Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said other offenses committed while campaigning should still be grounds for impeachment. “There are all kinds of things that people can do that would be prejudicial to the public interest in pursuit of office,” Avery said. He cited taking bribes, misusing campaign money, or other offenses people might not know about until after the election.
Avery said it’s not likely someone would be impeached for minor offenses, adding the courts have set a very high standard for conviction.
But Omaha Sen. John Nelson said he fears that standard could be downgraded and impeachment could become a partisan tool. “If you had a party that tried to keep someone from being elected to the Legislature but they got enough votes…then you could seek a way to get them impeached if you could find some things that the Legislature was willing to say, ‘Probably we ought to let the court decide this,’” Nelson said. He added the measure is “too broad” and “perhaps a means of thwarting the will of the voters that put someone in office.”
One other proposal on the ballot is aimed at putting the right to hunt, fish, and trap animals into the constitution. Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch said he’s concerned what he calls fringe groups could chip away at those rights with a goal of eventually abolishing them. “In a state like Nebraska you probably can’t jump from home plate to third base without going to first base and then second base in between,” Pirsch said. “Certainly the intent of this and the language behind this measure would prevent the erosion of these traditional activities that we’ve all enjoyed in Nebraska.”
Critics of the measure say there’s no threat to the rights the amendment is designed to protect, and the state constitution should not be cluttered by including it.