Omaha lawmaker: Ending secret statehouse votes would ‘hurt people’s feelings’

Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

At least two Democratic state lawmakers are convinced that a GOP statehouse power play is about a lot more than “transparency.”

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr-D says open votes for top legislative spots would only “hurt people’s feelings.”

“I think (the GOP) is trying to strong-arm its legislators,” Omaha Sen. Burke Harr-D tells Nebraska Watchdog.

As Nebraska Watchdog first reported rank-and-file Republicans across the state are being urged to contact their state senators and demand “open votes” when lawmakers choose over a dozen committee chairs early next month. For years, those votes have been cast in secret.

In an email to his members GOP State Chairman J.L. Spray recently wrote, “We are not doing this (to) influence for whom (lawmakers) vote, but so we can see the votes of our elected representatives.”

Both Harr and Sen. Brad Ashford—a senator for 16 years Ashford is leaving the legislature for Congress—believe the secret vote is a good idea although tough for lawmakers to talk about.

“It’s a touchy subject,” says Ashford. “Very delicate,” adds Harr who is running, apparently unopposed, for the chairmanship of the Business and Labor Committee.

In an interview with Nebraska Watchdog, Harr said “transparency is good until it isn’t.”

Sen. Harr: I would hope that if I didn’t vote for a committee chair that they then wouldn’t turn around and not support my bill if I go in front of their committee.

Nebraska Watchdog: But that’s the concern, right?

Sen. Harr: Yes, that’s the exact concern.

When state senators went home earlier this year, nine of 14 standing committees were run by Democratic chairs. As Nebraska Watchdog has reported with half a dozen of those Democratic chairs term-limited and not returning, that 9-5 Democratic lead is expected to be reversed, leaving the GOP with a 9-5 edge. With even more Republicans in the legislature—an Election Day landslide makes it 35 R’s-13 D’s and one independent—it now appears a frustrated GOP is pushing for even more clout.

Douglas County GOP Chairman Bryan Baumgart: “Year after year, important legislation (such as voter ID) has been held up in committee, as committee chairs refuse to allow the bills to come up for debate or vote.”

Any move away from these secret statehouse votes would take a change in the Legislature’s rules, a change that would have to be made before the committee ballots are cast.

One of the more interesting floor fights involves the next Speaker of the Legislature where it appears to be a GOP lock with only Republicans Galen Hadley, of Kearney, and Colby Coash, of Lincoln, the only lawmakers currently interested.

Who wins? Several insiders tell Nebraska Watchdog the speaker’s race is too close to call.

Harr has a favorite but when asked who, he wouldn’t say.

“Wouldn’t that just go against everything I just said,” noted Harr adding that public votes for the top legislative spots would only “hurt people’s feelings.”

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org.

Joe can be heard on Omaha’s KFAB radio every Monday morning at 7:40, KLIN in Lincoln every Tuesday morning at 7:35 and KHAS-AM in Hastings every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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