- Associated Press - Friday, January 6, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers approved new committee assignments Friday that could make it easier for conservatives to advance major tax-cutting legislation but could also create divisions over education policy.

The vote came as some senators argued that the Legislature is becoming overtly partisan after shunning formal party labels for 80 years.

“Today, officially, I declare this a partisan body,” said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a centrist Republican who has bucked his party’s leadership in the past.

The officially nonpartisan Legislature is now comprised of 32 registered Republicans, 15 Democrats, one Libertarian and one independent. But some committees are now stacked with Republicans, including the tax-focused Revenue Committee.

Even a conservative senator who won a chairmanship said he was disappointed that his all-Republican committee was “loaded up with like-minded individuals.”

“I would have wanted at least somebody of a different mindset on my committee,” said Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. “If I’m to send out the best legislation, I need someone on there who is going to think in a different manner.”

One exception is the Education Committee, which has four Democrats, three Republicans and a Libertarian. The chairman, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, is an outspoken conservative who has railed against the state teachers’ unions, while the Democratic members have all accepted campaign contributions from the group and stressed the need for more state aid to schools.

The budget-writing Appropriations Committee is also split about evenly, with five Republicans and four Democrats. The Judiciary Committee is a mix of three Democrats, three Republicans, a Libertarian and an independent.

The makeup of each panel was proposed by the Committee on Committees, which finalized its list on Wednesday, the session’s first day, after a debate with sharp partisan overtones. Several senators said the committee needs to establish specific guidelines to determine how senators are selected for each committee.

Earlier Wednesday, conservative Republicans swept nearly all of the Legislature’s committee chairmanships. Some of those seats had been sought by Democrats and moderate Republicans with more seniority. Despite GOP dominance, committees in recent years have been led by a mix of Republicans and Democrats.

Groene, a Republican, said the new chairmen more accurately reflect the beliefs of the overwhelmingly conservative state.

“This chamber should follow that majority philosophy, and it did with the chairmen votes this year,” he said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a Democrat, said the Legislature should reflect voters, but “that doesn’t mean that my constituents need to be silenced.”

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, a Republican, said the accusations of new partisanship were overblown. Nebraska’s Legislature became officially nonpartisan in 1937 through a voter-approved constitutional amendment, but senators frequently rely on their party’s resources when running for office.

“It’s not any different than it’s ever been,” Hughes said. “It’s always been this way. You can talk to a lot of past senators. It’s always been there, under the surface.”

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