- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Conservatives dominate Nebraska politics, but at times this session, the debate has seemed more in line with California or Massachusetts than the Cornhusker State.

From increased support for repealing the death penalty and raising the fuel tax to calls for legalizing medical marijuana and expanding the protections for gay and lesbian workers, lawmakers have been spending a lot of time on left-leaning legislation.

Not everyone likes it.

“I have no problem with debate,” Republican Sen. Bill Kintner, of Papillion, said. “I just wish we were debating bills that cut our taxes, that secure our liberties and protected life.”

Kintner and other conservatives note that amid all the talk about liberal ideas, bills aimed at further restricting access to abortion clinics and expanding gun owners’ rights have been stuck in committees.

The Legislature is made up of 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats and one independent, so why don’t conservatives hold sway on every issue?

Speaker of the Legislature Sen. Galen Hadley, of Kearney, said it’s not that simple.

Because of Nebraska’s single-chamber, nonpartisan Legislature, parties don’t keep legislators in line as in most states.

Hadley said there is a longstanding theory that Nebraska’s Legislature is comprised of about eight members who always take conservative stands and eight who opt for liberal positions. The rest make choices issue by issue.

Their parties may not like it, but their constituents don’t seem to mind.

“We don’t have party caucuses and we don’t have party leaders,” Hadley said. “In other legislatures the speaker can basically tell people how to vote. I can’t tell anybody how to vote. I have enough trouble telling myself how to vote.”

Another factor, Hadley said, is lawmakers’ views tend to moderate after spending time in Lincoln, where they hear plenty of contrasting views.

“It always is a surprise to people when someone they felt might be ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative comes down here and shifts more toward the middle,” Hadley said.

Kintner, who has focused on reducing taxes, said he and other Republicans often don’t know what to expect from this year’s 18 freshman.

“There’s not one sweeping statement that will explain the whole class,” Kintner said. “Everyone’s got an individual reason for doing what they’re doing. The guy down in the front row might be good on four of six conservative issues. Guy sitting behind him in this class is only good three out of six. They’re both conservative.”

One of those freshmen wild cards is Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, a conservative who voted for a fuel tax increase during its second-round vote. The arguments for using the funds to improve county infrastructure made sense, she said, even though higher taxes bother her. She switched sides in the third round and opposed the fuel tax increase.

“As you’re bombarded by all the different ideas, you realize the scope of the demands of the public and the institutional nature of decision making,” she said.

Kintner said it can be hard to vote the conservative line on every issue, especially when Nebraska’s legislative process puts an emphasis on moderation and compromise.

“When you come down here you get the conservative trained right out of you,” Kintner said.

Even more important, the lack of party control gives lawmakers the opportunity to go their own way. Or as Kintner puts it, “You’ve got 49 free agents, and no one’s running the show.”

Sen. Dan Hughes, a Republican from Venango, said Nebraska’s system also gives each senator the power to force debate on an issue. It might ultimately pass the Legislature and become law, but for at least a day or two, it can grab the chamber’s attention.

“Every issue has a champion,” Hughes said. “And depending upon how dear that is to you as an individual, how hard you are willing to work for it makes a difference on what we spend our time on.”

All those factors mean Nebraska can produce someone like Sen. Tommy Garrett. He describes himself as a conservative Republican but this session he has introduced a measure to legalize medical marijuana, supported abolishing the death penalty and voted to grant driver licenses to people brought into the country illegally as children.

“I was told last week someone in Douglas County called me the newest RINO, you know, Republican In Name Only, and my response to that was, ‘Have brain, will use it,’” he said.

Garrett said his votes are based on his conscience.

“My conservative colleagues were miffed at me, and I was getting the hairy eyeball, but you know, I’m just trying to do what’s right,” Garrett said. “And my democratic colleagues across the aisle? We’re all here for the same reason: to make life better for Nebraskans. Thank God for the unicameral. As hard as it is to get things done here, can you imagine having two houses?”

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