Somewhere, the late U.S. Sen. George Norris is smiling.
One of our neighbors to the south, Oklahoma, is talking about following Nebraska’s lead and adopting a unicameral state legislature.
An Oklahoma lawmaker has introduced a proposal to allow voters to decide whether they want to abolish half of their two-house legislature and create a one-chamber lawmaking body.
“How about having more coalitions built around issues, instead of party lines? How about blurring the rural and urban divide in the Oklahoma Legislature? And maybe less lobbyists?” asked the Enid News and Eagle in an editorial.
Well, yes, Oklahoma, we’ve already shown that this can work.
Oklahoma’s Legislature includes 101 state representatives and 48 state senators. That many lawmakers is costly, inefficient and unnecessary, says Patrick Anderson, the Enid state senator who is offering the unicameral idea.
Many of his arguments echo those made by Norris, the “New Deal Republican” U.S. senator from McCook who championed such a change here dec- ades ago. Norris argued that a unicameral would be more open and publicly accountable, while still subject to checks by the governor, the courts and voters armed with the initiative petition process.
Much of that has proven true. The pros of Nebraska’s unique lawmaking process — its remarkable transparency, efficiency and debates relatively free of partisan focus — outweigh the cons, such as the occasional times when lawmakers move too quickly or when an ineffective senator leaves his district without much of a voice.
Down south, the speaker pro tem of the Oklahoma House already is telling Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock that the idea is bad because it would kill the house “closest to the people.” A University of Oklahoma political scientist said the measure’s potential for passage was “zero, but it is a hell of an idea.”
Of course, throwing a bunch of politicians out of work is unpopular with politicians. It’s a job for voters.
Eighty years ago, Nebraska voters did just that, by a tally of 286,086 to 193,152. As promised, the new system proved more efficient. The number of committees shrank from 61 to 18. The number of bills was halved. The first unicameral session cost $103,445, just about half the $202,593 cost of the final bicameral session, according to the Nebraska Legislature’s own history.
Still, it’s a steep hill to climb.
In a 2005 referendum, 84 percent of Puerto Rico voters supported the idea of converting to a unicameral legislature. But legislation to advance the needed constitutional changes died — in the legislature.
Nebraska voters approved this idea in 1934, the first unicameral session convened in 1937, and Norris died in 1944. The year Nebraska’s began operating, attempts to convert to unicameral legislatures in 21 other states failed.
“The Unicameral’s first clerk, Hugo Srb, predicted that lawmakers in other states would not want to legislate their own jobs out of existence,” the Nebraska Legislature’s history says.
How right he was. Decades have passed since Nebraskans blazed the trail, and our nonpartisan, one-house Legislature remains one of a kind.
But Oklahomans should know, George Norris still had a darn good idea.