In Nebraska, governors are given the power to fill vacancies in the Legislature. It’s a reflection of the importance people place on having qualified representation without the delay or cost of holding a special election.
That importance is heightened by the unique design of Nebraska’s one-house system. Unlike states with two-house legislatures, where a senator’s resignation still leaves voters with a House member to speak up for them, the occasional vacancy here leaves 1 of every 49 Nebraskans with no representative in the lawmaking branch of government.
So it is understandable that members of the public are scratching their heads over Gov. Dave Heineman’s selection of Bellevue businessman Patrick Shannon and the appointee’s resignation just hours later.
Such stumbles put strains on the voters’ trust.
Shannon was fined $16,000 for allegedly orchestrating a smear campaign against a 2004 election opponent, a charge he has disputed. The fine for questionable campaign tactics was civil rather than criminal, but that doesn’t mean the issue isn’t serious. Just last year, voters amended the Nebraska Constitution to allow state elected officials to be impeached and removed for wrongdoing committed while running for office.
And what about Shannon declining to pay the fine to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission? Or the record of tax liens that World-Herald reporting has disclosed? It all raises red flags.
Shannon says a family member’s heart attack was the reason for his resignation. He also says the governor knew about his fines and asked about them. The governor and his staff have remained mum on the selection process, so Shannon’s is the only voice people are hearing.
But the issue here is bigger than one appointee. Just as in election years, it’s about making certain that qualified people serve Nebraskans in the Legislature.
The office of state senator isn’t an honorific. This is serious work with serious ramifications for the state and its future. Filling vacancies when they occur is an equally serious matter. Those who hold the office need to be independent-minded, prepared to tackle a multitude of issues, ready to make tough decisions and able to pass laws based on what’s best for Nebraskans.
In the era of term limits, the days of the Legislature’s old bulls — lawmakers with years of experience and accumulated knowledge — aren’t coming back. Their short-timer replacements must be ready to hit the ground running, tackle tough issues, look for needed improvements, study and propose bills, cast votes and serve their fellow citizens.
Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan Legislature has elements of partisanship, of course. But it has remained admirably free of much of the raw partisanship that has paralyzed Washington. While it would be naive to think that politics should play no part in filling vacancies, it also would be a mistake to put anything above finding candidates fully qualified to serve.
Appointments such as these are a reflection of a governor’s judgment and philosophy, and the current process of governors appointing replacement legislators has generally worked well.
But it is important to remember that such appointments bypass a legislative district’s voters and election campaigns, those vigorous public debates in which candidates’ pluses and minuses can be weighed, their records and ideas carefully evaluated.
All of those involved in making these appointments need to do as thorough a job of checking out candidates as the voters would.