Published Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:57 pm
George Ayoub: Shortened session raises stakes for state legislators

Nebraska state senators are going to be busy. Just ask them.

In interview after interview, the nub of the pre-session senatorial groupthink was a forecast of serious issue broaching at a manic pace, the latter a 60-day session staple.

Early on, their calculus appears accurate. As of Friday morning, 118 bills had been introduced in the first two days of the session, only a fraction of the total that will find the hopper if history guides us.

Some may even become laws — separating the Nebraska Legislature from its federal brothers and sisters, whose congressional work is again deeply in the throes of do-nothingness.

Among the state crowd pleasers between now and April 17 will be prison reform, the revisiting of Medicaid expansion and water issues.

And it really wouldn’t be a legislative session without plenty of tax talk, including two competing plans for cuts from a couple senators running for governor; a measure from State Sen. Ernie Chambers to do away with the property tax exemption for churches; and another effort to eighty-six the inheritance tax, something Gov. Dave Heineman was unable to do last session.

Everybody loves a tax cut, so promising Nebraskans fuller pockets sells easily — or at least until we read the roster of whose oxen are scheduled for goring. Hey, somebody has to pay.

The pre-session work of the Legislature’s Tax Modernization Committee resulted in a recommendation that, while our property taxes may be a little on the high side compared to our bordering neighbors, deep cuts would be unwise.

Many in Grand Island will watch keenly as State Sen. Mike Gloor asks the Legislature to put a stop to the practice by which the city lost the veterans home, now scheduled to move to Kearney in 2018, money and momentum being what they are today.

While interest — and emotions — will run high in both cities, I will be surprised if senators outside the area have much enthusiasm for the process-changing bill. They’re more likely to see it as settling a dispute between the governor and Grand Island rather than progressive public policy.

Senators’ grindstones may be amping up the rpms, but they might want to find the time to cozy up with a good book. I recommend “This Town,” Mark Leibovich’s look inside the world of Washington’s political/celebrity culture.

Not that we consider our 49 future-shapers as celebrities. Nebraskans are a little too self-effacing either to accept such a role or assign it to senators.

One subtext from Leibovich is far more important for senators in the Legislature and those of us who put them there.

The premise is simple: Members of elected bodies immerse themselves in an atmosphere voters do not understand. How could we? We’re not there.

Any number of state senators have told me that “understanding the place” is key because of the unique nature of its institutional machinations and resulting culture.

But unless elected leaders work hard at avoiding it, the “how” of their workaday political world can create a disconnect between the milieu in which they craft public policy and the consequences of those policies in the real world.

The short answer: Be in touch.

Staying connected requires not only a balancing act but casting a wide net as well. “In touch” covers a considerable swath, not simply constituents who agree with a senator, voted for a senator, contributed to a senator’s campaign or even live in his or her district.

It’s all of us: those who live with the policies and laws — whether they limit hunting cougars, cut our income taxes, extend health care access to more of our neighbors or redefine “good time” for prisoners.

Balancing and casting can be tough for a state senator in a harried, stressful 60-day session. The only thing tougher would be doing neither.

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