The Nebraska Legislature chose a new speaker, elected new committee leaders and welcomed 10 new lawmakers Wednesday as it began a new session with looming battles over tax cuts and spending
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The Nebraska Legislature chose a new speaker, elected new committee leaders and welcomed 10 new lawmakers Wednesday as it began a new session with looming battles over tax cuts and spending.
Lawmakers returned to Lincoln with the state facing a projected $194 million budget shortfall, far less than the $1 billion hole they had to fill when they last wrote a budget in 2011.
The 90-day session will see 10 new members and mark the return of Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha. All were sworn into office Wednesday morning. Chambers, the longest-serving and best-known state senator in Nebraska history, is returning after term limits forced him out of office four years ago.
Lawmakers also chose a new speaker, Sen. Greg Adams, of York, to replace the term-limited Sen. Mike Flood, of Norfolk. Adams, who was unopposed, said he would bring "an agenda of fairness, above all else" to the officially nonpartisan Legislature.
"I'm humbled by the responsibilities of this position - a responsibility to all of you, a responsibility to the citizens of Nebraska and a responsibility to this wonderful institution," Adams told his colleagues.
A retired high school government and economics teacher, Adams was elected to the Legislature in 2006. He is known for helping broker deals on state funding formulas for public schools and Nebraska's community colleges. He previously served as the mayor of York.
Lawmakers are bracing for a long debate over whether to expand Medicaid coverage to more residents, an optional piece of the federal health care overhaul. Gov. Dave Heineman vigorously opposes any such expansion, saying it will drain money from other priorities. Supporters in the Legislature argue that extending coverage is a moral imperative that could save the state money over the long term by reducing insurance and health care costs.
Heineman will deliver his State of the State address to lawmakers on Tuesday. The governor has said he will call for an increase in state aid to the University of Nebraska system and the state's three public colleges. He also is expected to call for some type of tax reform to attract new businesses and residents.
"The governor looks forward to working with Speaker Adams and all members of the Legislature, as we work to address the issues that are important to hard-working Nebraskans," Heineman spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein said in a statement.
Lawmakers opened the session with contested races to lead the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee, the Natural Resources Committee and the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat, defeated North Platte Sen. Tom Hansen, a Republican, to serve as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. The chairman serves as the go-to person on budget matters and works with Heineman's office to set a two-year spending plan. Mello's election is also noteworthy because the seat in recent years has gone to lawmakers from rural districts.
Mello has frequently clashed with the governor and the Legislature's more conservative members, but he pledged Wednesday to help lawmakers build a "consensus-driven budget" while striving to meet both rural and urban needs. He replaces state Sen. Lavon Heidemann, an Elk Creek farmer who left office because of term limits.
Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson was chosen as the new chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, the go-to panel for state water issues and legislation related to the Keystone XL pipeline. He defeated Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen.
Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas was chosen to serve as chairwoman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, defeating Bellevue Sen. Scott Price.
Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley was unopposed in his bid to become chairman of the Revenue Committee, and Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz was elected as the new head of the Agriculture Committee.
Grand Island Sen. Mike Gloor was chosen as the new chairman of the Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee, while Cedar Rapids Sen. Kate Sullivan replaced Adams as head of the Education Committee.
Another big change is the return of Chambers, an independent who had to sit out four years because of term limits before being allowed to run again. Chambers is known for his sharp questioning, which puts many lawmakers on the defensive, and for his encyclopedic knowledge of legislatives rules that has helped him single-handedly block measures he opposed.
The 38-year veteran lawmaker has said many bills approved in his absence weren't debated as aggressively as they should have been, and he promised to "do some cleaning up" once he's sworn in.
Lawmakers will begin to introduce bills after they convene at 10 a.m. Thursday.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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