- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nearly half of Nebraska’s state senators will be forced out of office early next year as the state’s voter-approved term limits hit their first group of lawmakers.

The loss of legislative experience will be painful, critics say, probably more so here than anywhere else because the Nebraska Legislature is uniquely unicameral — it has only one chamber, and that chamber has just 49 senators.

In January, 20 freshmen will be struggling to learn the ins and outs of the lawmaking process. The lawmakers they will replace, including the current speaker and nine committee heads, have served a combined 239 years.

“You, in effect, have decimated an entire branch of government,” said state Sen. Ernie Chambers, an outspoken opponent of term limits and the longest-serving lawmaker in Nebraska history, which is in his 36th year.

Under term limits, new senators will be swayed easily, tricked and outmaneuvered by lobbyists and others with special interests, said Mr. Chambers, 68.

A legal challenge to the term-limits law is pending before the state Supreme Court, though the legal arguments have not been scheduled. The plaintiffs say the law violates their First Amendment free-speech and -association rights and 14th Amendment equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Critics cite the example of Colorado, which in 1990 became one of the first states to adopt term limits. Diane Rees, a lobbyist for the past 30 years in Denver, said term limits there have resulted in a near total loss of institutional memory and an increase in power of staff and bureaucrats.

“Term limits are disastrous and everyone who’s involved in the political process knows it,” she said.

Utah legislators repealed their eight-year-old term limits law in 2003 after complaints that the state would lose experienced lawmakers and officeholders. Idaho’s Legislature also repealed a term-limits law.

In Nebraska, the term-limits law was approved by 56 percent of voters in 2000 after a petition drive.

Doug Kagan of Omaha, chairman of the group Don’t Touch Term Limits, said it was imperative that sitting senators be removed under term limits.

“The ones who have been in there have been entrenched for so long, they seem to be beholden to the special interest groups,” Mr. Kagan said.

There will be no shortage of fresh faces, and there is a wealth of candidates: 83 vying for the 20 newly open seats.

The Nebraska law bars senators from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms, but they could return after sitting out one term.

In other states, lawmakers forced out of one legislative chamber by term limits can run for office in the other chamber, and they have done so in “staggering numbers” compared with before the enactment of limits, said Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks state-level term-limits issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That is not possible in Nebraska, where the 49 state senators constitute the entire legislative branch of government.

The nation’s first term-limit laws were passed by voters in 1990 in California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Eighteen other states followed, but courts threw out term limits in four states.

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