Living With The Unicameral, 75-Plus Later

Nebraska Notebook

Here in Nebraska, our legislative body receives its share of complaints, too, and some are warranted.

Published on: January 18, 2013

We complain loudly about Congress, and we should. Its entrenched partisanship, penchant for enacting laws stifling our economy and irresponsible spending have placed us in deep debt. We have every right to complain about its failure to agree on issues important to every American's livelihood.

Here in Nebraska, our legislative body receives its share of complaints, too, and some are warranted. But before we get too carried away, let's step back and look at the unique system we have in Nebraska—the Unicameral, or one-house legislature.

Nebraskans like to be different. It's a red state, for which I'm proud, but it's an independent conservatism that marks this state's structure and political history. It's the only state in the nation to have a completely public power system. With exceptions, we usually vote for the best person for election to the Senate and House. We were the first state ever—in 1986--to have the nominees for governor both be women.

The unicameral, though, is the ultimate in "different." There are 49 state "senators" representing 49 districts. No House or Senate.

One of its hallmarks is that every bill introduced must have a public hearing, so Nebraskans get the opportunity to speak on every proposal. And bills do not have to go through behind-the-scenes secretive conference committees to arrive at the final piece of legislative language.

All in all, we have a more transparent process.

It's non-partisan, too, by the way. That may prompt eye-rolling among some folks, but for the most part it works in Nebraska. In each of the state's 49 districts, citizens' names are placed on the ballot without a Democrat or Republican label. The top two finishers in each district in the primary go onto the general election.

To be sure, party politics do play a role in urging some candidates to run. And I realize you can never remove party politics from the process completely.

In the Unicameral, debate is more apt to be rural vs. urban rather than along party lines.

One potential negative has arisen over the years as Nebraska's rural population shrinks, and the populations of Omaha and Lincoln and other more urban regions increases. Fewer senators from rural areas mean fewer senators standing up for agricultural and rural issues. Yet, we've been fortunate to have strong rural state senators.

The Unicameral form of government in Nebraska was approved in 1934 as a constitutional amendment, and its first session convened in 1937.

Its biggest proponent was U.S. Sen. George Norris of McCook, perhaps Nebraska's most widely known politician ever. He tirelessly campaigned across the state for the switch, proclaiming often his dislike of the "behind-closed actions" of the conference committees in a two-house legislature.

One of the influential Nebraskans of that time who unsuccessfully fought to retain the two-house system was Sam McKelvie, president and manager of Nebraska Farmer.