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Impact of Term Limits in Nebraska Feared
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, Omaha, is shown in this, March 10, 2006, file photo. Nearly half of Nebraska's state senators will be looking for new jobs later this year, forced out of office because of term limits. But unlike their counterparts in other states who face the same fate, in Nebraska they can't turn around and run for office in the other house. Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral form of government. Its 49 state senators, who each represent roughly 35,000 people, constitute the entire legislative branch of government. "You, in effect, have decimated an entire branch of government," said state Sen. Ernie Chambers, an outspoken term limits opponent and the longest-serving lawmaker in Nebraska history, currently in his 36th year. (AP Photo/Bill Wolf, file)
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nearly half of Nebraska's state senators will be looking for new jobs later this year, forced out of office because of term limits.
But unlike their counterparts in other states who face the same fate, in Nebraska they can't turn around and run for office in the other house.
The reason is simple: There isn't one.
Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral form of government. Its 49 state senators, who each represent roughly 35,000 people, constitute the entire legislative branch of government.
That means politicians can't skip from the House to the Senate, or vice versa, when forced out, and means that, according to critics, term limits hurt Nebraska more than other states.
Opponents say term limits will hobble the Legislature next year when 20 freshmen - 40 percent of the entire body - struggle with trying to learn the lawmaking process. Those leaving served a combined 239 years, including the current speaker of the Legislature and nine who chair committees.
"You, in effect, have decimated an entire branch of government," said state Sen. Ernie Chambers, an outspoken term limits opponent and the longest-serving lawmaker in Nebraska history, currently in his 36th year.
A legal challenge to Nebraska's term limits law is pending before the state Supreme Court after it was thrown out earlier this year in district court.
Critics point to Colorado, one of the first states to pass term limits in 1990. Diane Rees, a lobbyist for the past 30 years in Denver, said term limits there have resulted in a near total loss of institutional memory and an increase in power of staff and bureaucrats.
"Term limits are disastrous and everyone who's involved in the political process knows it," she said.
Nebraska's unicameral system relies on having experienced people in office because there isn't a second house to balance things out, Chambers said. Under term limits, new senators will be easily swayed, tricked and outmaneuvered by those with other interests, he said.
"Where do you go for advice? Well, you go out in the Rotunda and there's about 350 guys out there paid to give you advice," said Jack Gould, spokesman for political watchdog group Common Cause of Nebraska. "It's going to be difficult for them to separate themselves from the influence of the lobbyists."
Term limit supporters aren't convinced.
"This argument has always been made that this will empower the lobby and there's only one group that hates term limits more than politicians and that's lobbyists," said Paul Jacob, spokesman for U.S. Term Limits.
If anything, Nebraska's unique structure will only increase the number of fresh, unsullied faces in office because they won't be able to skip between the houses, Jacob said.
There's already evidence that may be happening. There are 83 candidates for 20 open seats this year, which compares with 55 candidates for 25 seats up for election in 2004.
The Legislature, anticipating potential problems, has earmarked $50,000 to increase training and allow for earlier hiring of staff to better prepare the rookies to be elected in November.
Lawmakers in other states with term limits are moving from one house to the other in "staggering numbers" compared to before the limits were enacted, said Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks state-level term limits issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The nation's first term limit laws were passed by voters in 1990 in California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Eighteen other states subsequently adopted limits, but courts threw them out in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, and legislatures in Idaho and Utah repealed them.
Term limits were approved by 56 percent of Nebraska voters in 2000 following a citizen petition drive. The law bars senators from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms, but they could return after sitting out one term.
In Florida, where term limits have been in effect since 2000, "electoral politics becomes really more of a shell game" as politicians move from one house to the other, said Matt Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor.
"I think it will be substantially different in Nebraska because they can't jump from one to the other," Corrigan said.
On the Net:
Nebraska Legislature: http://www.unicam.state.ne.us/
Don't Touch Term Limits: http://www.donttouchtermlimits.org/
U.S. Term Limits: http://www.termlimits.org