How the Cornhusker State Put Its House in Order

Times Staff Writer

It could only happen in Nebraska--the kind of spirited fight to elect the speaker that occurred on the floor of the Unicameral Legislature at this year’s opening of the 89th session.

In other states, the presiding officer of a legislative body would be chosen in caucus from the ranks of the party in power. There is no political party in power in Nebraska’s Legislature.

No Democratic leadership. No Republican leadership.

Nebraska’s Legislature is nonpartisan. When candidates run for the 49 seats, their party affiliation does not appear on the ballot.


The Cornhusker State is unique on two scores--the only state among the 50 with a unicameral (one-house) legislature, the only state lawmaking body that is nonpartisan.

It took an hour and eight ballots for the 49 senators to select their speaker by secret vote. In seven ballots, Bernice Labedz, 65, of Omaha, a public relations director for a brewery, could not come up with 25 votes or more, a majority, to win the top spot.

Neither could William Nichol, 66, speaker the previous two years and former mayor of Scottsbluff.

Both received 24 votes, ballot after ballot, with one senator abstaining. Finally, on the eighth ballot it broke and Nichol garnered the necessary 25 votes to 23 for Labedz and one vote for another senator.


Nichol happens to be a Republican. Labedz happens to be a Democrat. But during the voting, Nichol confided that he knew six Republicans who were not voting for him. The votes were not, as they never are in the Nebraska Legislature, along party lines.

“What we really have here is a statewide town meeting with 49 independently thinking members,” said Jerome Warner, 57, a farmer from Waverly, Nebraska’s senior senator, beginning his 23rd year in the Unicameral. He was speaker in 1969-70. His father was the first speaker of the Unicameral in 1937-38.

Why is Nebraska different?

“The nonpartisan Unicameral is the legacy of the late George W. Norris (he died in 1944), Nebraska’s fiercely independent U.S. senator,” said Gov. Bob Kerrey, 41. “Norris was known as the ‘Gentle Knight.’

“He was a Republican, yet he endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt for President. He was a lifelong advocate of political reform. He hated partisan politics. He was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a socialist measure. He led the campaign to eliminate one of Nebraska’s legislative chambers.”

Norris had a saying: “The governor is the president of a corporation, the Legislature is its board of directors and the people are the stockholders.” Norris wanted a legislature small enough so it could be carefully controlled by the public and also would be less expensive to operate.

It was during the height of the Great Depression 50 years ago in November, 1934, that Nebraskans voted by an impressive majority to adopt the one-house, nonpartisan system. There had been 133 members in the House and Senate combined. That number was reduced to 43 senators when the first Unicameral met in January, 1937.

Last month, as part of the opening week’s ceremonies of the legislative session, the ornate hall where lawmakers meet was officially named the George W. Norris Memorial Legislative Chamber.


Across the Rotunda from the Unicameral, under the golden dome of the Nebraska state house, is the Nebraska House of Representatives, a ghost chamber, left exactly as it was when last used as the state’s second house in 1936. Leather is frayed and peeling off chairs in front of desks that had been occupied by former House members.

“You know it’s really a fluke that Nebraska has this unique political system,” Lt. Gov. Donald F. McGinley, 64, of Ogallala, noted. “The Unicameral rode on the coattails of two extremely popular issues, repealing Prohibition and permitting parimutuel horse racing.

“It was a three-way package deal. Proponents of one issue supported the other two. Thanks to the gamblers and the drinkers, Nebraska has its one-house Legislature.”

Senior Sen. Warner cited many examples of why the Unicameral system has worked so well for Nebraskans: “A recent independent study of the 50 state legislatures ranked Nebraska first in accountability.

“It costs less, speeds legislation, is more efficient. Power is spread out broadly. Every single bill introduced must by law have a public hearing. Unlike other states, there are no games played between two houses, one house passing the buck to the other.”

He said being a Nebraskan senator is like being in a fishbowl. “Each of us is solely responsible for what is or isn’t passed. There is no escape. There is no party discipline. All leadership is elected at large. New coalitions form and dissolve daily over each issue.

“I doubt lobbyists have any more or as much influence as in other states.”

There is a high turnover in the Legislature. Few members use the Unicameral as a political steppingstone as they do in other state legislatures. In the 1985-86 Unicameral, 38 of the 49 senators have served six years or less, only eight have been senators more than 10 years.


Warner, a senator since 1963, was asked why he keeps running for office. He laughed and replied: “It beats feeding steers in January, February and March snowstorms. I let my brother run the farm while I’m in Lincoln tending to legislative business.”

Gov. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner who lost his right leg in Vietnam in 1969 when he was a Navy frogman, said a big plus for the Nebraska Legislature is that decisions are based on the merit of each bill rather than on party considerations.

“A drawback at times,” noted the Democratic governor, “is the lack of identifiable leadership, someone I know I can go talk to, to try to move programs along.”

Because of the nature of this legislative body, Rod Johnson, 27, the youngest member, had no compunctions about running against two veteran members for chairmanship of the important Agriculture and Environment Committee. Johnson, a farmer from the small town of Harvard and a senator for two years, won.

“I’m sure someone my age with my limited legislative experience would never be elected to an important chairmanship in another state,” Johnson conceded after being selected for the leadership position in a secret ballot at the opening day’s session.

Johnson talked of the sense of independence of each of the 49 senators. Ernie Chambers, 47, the Unicameral’s only black, is a prime example. He is an outspoken maverick, one of the Legislature’s most articulate members. He wears sweat shirts, Levi’s and track shoes to every legislative and committee meeting he attends.

“Sometimes I wonder what a black man like me is doing in a room full of white people,” laughed Chambers as he lifted weights in his Capitol office. All of Nebraska knows what Ernie Chambers is doing. He is known as “the conscience of the Unicameral.” Nebraska, with a population of 1,570,000, has fewer than 60,000 blacks, most of whom live in Omaha. Chambers has been a senator for 15 years.

One of his proudest moments was when his 1980 resolution was adopted calling for a divestment of state funds from companies doing business in South Africa. It was the first such action by any legislature in America and has been a model for other states.

Chambers has attracted national attention in the sports world for his proposals (never enacted) to pay football players as university employees. A graduate of the University of Creighton Law School, he has never practiced as an attorney, choosing to cut hair in an Omaha barbershop to augment his $4,800-a-year income as a senator.

Nebraska’s legislators’ pay scale is on the low side on the national level. In Alaska, lawmakers are paid $48,000-a-year, in New York, $32,960, and in California $28,110, not counting other covered expenses and benefits. Rhode Island is at the bottom of the rung. Legislators in the smallest state receive only $5 a day, a maximum of $300 a session with no per diem expense money.

Agriculture is Nebraska’s biggest industry. So, it comes as no surprise there are more farmers (16) in the Legislature than any other group.

“One regret is the small salary and the time required limit participation. Most members are fairly well-to-do farmers and business people or retired. In my case, my husband has been the bread winner, so I have the time,” said Shirley Marsh, 59, of Lincoln, a senator for 12 years. She was the only woman senator her first four years in office. Now there are 12 women in the Unicameral.

Legislators from every state in the nation and from many foreign countries over the years have beat a steady path to the 400-foot-high white limestone Capitol dominating the Nebraska plains and topped by the 19 1/2-foot bronze statue of the Sower, a barefoot man standing on a 12 1/2-foot pedestal of wheat and corn, and casting seeds “to bring a finer, more noble living to all Nebraskans.”

They come to see the Nebraska experience, the nonpartisan Unicameral at work. Practically every state at one time or another since 1937 has sent delegations to study the system.

Jess Unruh, California state treasurer and former speaker of the California State Assembly, for a time led a campaign promoting a unicameral legislature for California. In an article on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1972, Unruh wrote:

“If someone tells you a two-house Legislature is good for the state, ask them why, then, don’t we have two Los Angeles City Councils, or two county Boards of Supervisors. Or, if two are ‘good,’ why wouldn’t three be better?”

Former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, supporting Unruh’s effort, declared at the time: “It is completely unnecessary and too costly to have a two-house Legislature. The advantages of a one-house legislature are numerous, greater cooperation between members, stronger check on the power of the governor and less duplication of effort.”

A drive to put the question on the California ballot failed in 1974 when sponsors were unable to get enough qualifying signatures on petitions. Interest in the matter has since died although it surfaces briefly from time to time.

As Patrick J. O’Donnell, 35, Nebraska’s clerk of the Legislature, sees it: “Other states find it too novel, too unique. They don’t want to upset the apple cart.”