As the saying goes, when you have an 800 pound gorilla in the room it is pretty hard to ignore. If you have two 800 pound gorillas, you better get busy. Of course, the two big "gorillas" in your Legislature are redistricting and the budget. We began to address both of these issues this past week.
The Appropriations Committee released some very unofficial, preliminary budget numbers that would begin to deal with our projected revenue shortfall. In the coming weeks as the numbers become more concrete, I will discuss with you our solutions to this problem and some of the "how and why" of what we are doing.
The other big issue that must be dealt with is redistricting and we began that process this past week as well.
As I mentioned in an earlier column, the Executive Committee of the Legislature has chosen the Redistricting Committee for this year. The committee is made up of nine senators and I have been named the chairman. Three senators are chosen from each of the state's congressional districts and no more than five of the committee members may come from the same political party. This year's makeup includes five Republicans and four Democrats, six men and three women. This committee is formed every ten years to coincide with the U.S. Census. The purpose is to assure as equal representation as possible for the people of Nebraska as a result of any population growth and also any populations shifts. What is drawn up in the next few weeks will remain the district boundaries for the next ten years. We will take the raw numbers as they are now and not be allowed to project what may be trends in the future.
It appears that the state has grown from around 1.7 million people in 2000 to around 1.826 million people now. This will put the ideal legislative district size at approximately 37,275 people. There is a plus or minus factor allowed to help the process.
The committee is to operate as any other standing committee of the Legislature. Boundary ideas will be presented in bill form not only for the Legislature but for the Supreme Court, Public Service Commission, State Board of Education, the Board of Regents and for the three congressional districts for our representatives to Congress. If history is any indicator, the legislative district and congressional district discussions will probably cause the most heartburn as you can imagine. Three counties in the state - Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster - comprise almost 54 percent of our population. This figure reflects not only state growth but a west to east shift in state residents that must be accounted for thus Douglas and Sarpy counties may very well pick up one or two legislative seats at the expense of the vast areas of the western part of our state.
We had two bills referenced to our committee aside from the ones that I mentioned above and we had a public hearing on them this past week.
LB 195 would amend state statute to allow for 50 senators instead of the current 49. The thought is that by adding a member to the body, perhaps western Nebraska could keep the representation it has now. Naturally, one of the big questions with this bill is the cost. Adding a senator and staff would cost approximately $125,000 per year. At this time as we wrestle with budgets and possibly cuts in one form or the other, adding a member might send a confusing message to state employees and constituents as well.
LB 233 would decrease the number of state senators by four to 45. The sponsor of this bill said that by lowering the number of senators it would increase diversity in legislative districts as well as save the state close to $500,000 per year in costs of senator and staff salaries. While the idea of savings sounds good, maps of a reduced number of state senators showed huge, almost unmanageable western legislative districts. As it stands now, one western senator said she could put the state of New Jersey entirely in her district. It was stated that modern technology allows one to cover a larger area electronically than ever before and this is true, however I think face-to-face interaction with constituents whenever possible has always served me well.
While these two bills might spark some interesting coffee-shop discussions, our committee has taken no action on these measures at this time.
Sen. Chris Langemeier represents Nebraska's 23rd District. He can be reached at (402) 471-2719, District 23, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 or firstname.lastname@example.org.