Transparency is a hallmark of the Nebraska Legislature, one too often taken for granted.

Every bill is entitled to a committee hearing. With only one legislative chamber, Nebraska has no conference committee between House and Senate, meaning every amendment and change to a bill is introduced and voted on in public.

Despite the state’s proud history of open government, one critical vote — for committee leadership positions — continues to be held by secret ballot. Those votes must remain secret.

Yes, this may seem a like a paradox. The Journal Star editorial board has long advocated for government to conduct as much business as possible in the public eye as a matter of accountability.

But secret ballots for leadership preserve another integral trait of the Legislature: its officially nonpartisan composition. Publicizing these ballots would reintroduce a form of a chilling effect that’s been absent from the capital, at least in this particular arena, since 1973.

Senators must be allowed to vote their consciences freely when choosing their leaders from among their ranks. Without the overt party pressures that come into play in a partisan legislature, Nebraska’s lawmakers can vote for the best person for the particular job, rather than being held to the party line.

The system allows a veteran lawmaker whose political beliefs defy the majority of the Legislature to win a chairmanship. Like anything within politics, it’s imperfect. Just last year, three freshman senators won committee chair positions on their first day in the capitol, before they’d ever introduced or voted on a bill.

Only one such position, chairman of the select Committee on Committees, was open in 2018. Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann won the seat on the session’s first day, edging out Hastings Sen. Steve Halloran by a 25-24 margin.

Days later, as the adoption of this legislative session’s permanent rules were being finalized, Bancroft Sen. Lydia Brasch moved — then quickly withdrew — a request for open voting to fill leadership positions. Her action, though, sparked an always robust debate among senators.

In most partisan state legislatures, committee leadership decisions are made in closed rooms, too. Most states’ committee chairs are selected from within the caucus of the majority party, meaning only some, but not all, of the body has a say in these important positions.

That structure also allows such positions to be used as a powerful prize for those who most faithfully adhere to party doctrine — or a punishment for those who don’t.

In our view, Nebraska does it far better — and more democratically — without public tallies.

By enlisting all 49 senators, political affiliations aside, and permitting them to vote their consciences rather than party lines, secret ballots remain best for the Nebraska Legislature as it chooses its leaders.

— Journal Star, Jan. 16, 2018

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