- Associated Press - Thursday, April 17, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers finished their session on Thursday having passed major legislation to lower taxes, reduce prison crowding and pay for water conservation projects.

But the session was also marked by drawn-out squabbles over seemingly trivial issues, and a failure to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law.

Even on the largely ceremonial last day, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha spent several hours railing against the lawmakers who rejected his bill to ban mountain lion hunting. His floor speech delayed final votes on more than a dozen bills, and postponed Gov. Dave Heineman’s traditional end-of-year remarks.

Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams said lawmakers still managed to debate nearly all of the proposals designated as priorities in this year’s 60-day session. Adams said he started the session wondering how lawmakers would accomplish all of the high-profile goals they touted, but the Legislature still passed several major laws.

“Representative democracy was never meant to be efficient, and that’s what we have,” Adams said. “That Nebraska way … means rancor at times, it means head-butting at times and contentiousness.”

Many bills were killed through legislative filibusters, despite apparent support from a majority of senators. Opponents used the tactic to derail bills that would have expanded Medicaid, allowed motorcyclists to ride without helmets, and created a nonpartisan body to draw legislative and congressional districts.

They also spent hours debating a bill that would have allowed civilian groups to patrol neighborhoods with flashing amber lights on their vehicles. The bill eventually died, and some lawmakers complained that opponents had burned valuable time when lawmakers could have turned to other issues.

Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, chairman of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, said the session was the most grueling he has experienced since he took office in 2009.

“We limped our way across the finish line,” he said. “But overall, when everything is said and done, I think the process works. Were there some tough days? Yeah. Were there some ill feelings at times? Probably. But that’s OK. It all worked out the way it needed to.”

Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, one of the 17 senators leaving due to term limits, said the session was contentious but productive. Some of the stress came because departing senators felt the need to take final action on the issues that they hold dear, she said.

“For a 60-day session we tackled some very, very heavy issues and we came out with some good policy,” she said.

Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said the water legislation and the state’s prison reform efforts were both monumental accomplishments for the state. Christensen said he viewed previous Legislatures as more conservative than the one in place over the last two years.

“I just think that we are a more evenly split body right now between the left and the right, so it’s going to cause more friction,” he said.

Heineman on Thursday praised lawmakers for their work this year on a series of tax-cut measures, new funding approved for water projects and steps taken to ease long-term prison crowding. He singled out the tax-cut measures, which will provide more than $412 million in tax relief over the next five years.

Heineman said he was pleased that lawmakers didn’t pass a bill to expand Medicaid as part of the federal health care law, and rejected an effort to allow state bond-funding for road projects. Despite their differences, he said, senators kept a strong focus on education and economic development.

“Nebraska is on the move, and we need to maintain that economic momentum,” he said.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who leaves office in January, said his last two sessions seemed to include more personal attacks against senators. In a few late-night debates this year, lawmakers accused one another of being childish and hypocritical, and vowed to seek revenge against those who stonewalled their bills.

“I think it’s just a decision that people made, that that’s a fair part of debate,” Lathrop said. “It may reflect what’s going on in the country generally. And it’s unfortunate.”

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