So, what does it mean when Democrats claim more legislative leadership positions than Republicans in a solidly red state? Especially when a Democrat from Omaha wins the Appropriations Committee chairmanship? Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha is the first Democrat in 64 years to be elected Appropriations chairman.
One wag called the latter “a sign of the apocalypse.” Others see the choices as a signal that Gov. Dave Heineman and Republican Party leaders overstepped in trying to influence legislative matters. Maybe so. Party matters, despite the Legislature’s official nonpartisanship, but legislators pride themselves on the body’s independence.
Don’t discount the personal factors, either. Nebraska lawmakers traditionally choose their leaders based on personality and management skills as much as on politics. Votes are more likely to favor the senators perceived to be competent, fair and easy to work with than those who adhere to a particular point of view. Senators who antagonize too many colleagues don’t get elected, no matter what their party connections may be.
Political affiliations would matter in a system where committee chairmen control the committee agenda and can keep bills from seeing the light of day. In the Nebraska Legislature, however, all bills must receive a public hearing and lawmakers can vote to pull a bill from committee if a chairman refuses to take a vote on advancing it.
Occasionally, the system produces odd results. Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Democrat who chairs the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, has found himself opposing bills that other committee members voted to advance.