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Legislature losing 74 years of experience next year

Legislature losing 74 years of experience next year

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LINCOLN - When Nebraska lawmakers reconvene for the next regular session in January, seven familiar faces will be gone from the Legislature's floor.

The seven, including Sen. Paul Hartnett of Bellevue - the fourth-longest serving member with 20 years as a senator - will be taking a collective 74 years of experience with them.

And all are leaving while they still have some political life in them. A two-term limit enacted by Nebraska voters in 2000 will not impact anyone until 2006, meaning all seven lawmakers retiring this year could have run for re-election.

"If I was being kicked out, I think I'd be much more upset about leaving," said Sen. Floyd Vrtiska of Table Rock, who was first elected in 1992.

"I'm the oldest senator up here," the 77-year-old Vrtiska said of his decision to retire. "I think it's time I gave that title to someone else."

Besides Hartnett and Vrtiska, other senators retiring at the end of this year are Speaker of the Legislature Curt Bromm of Wahoo (12 years); Jim Jones of Eddyville (12 years); Gene Tyson of Norfolk (8 years); Mark Quandahl of Omaha (6 years); and Chip Maxwell of Omaha (4 years).

Hartnett does not think the more than 70 years of experience leaving the Legislature this year will have much of an impact.

"There's always been a turnover in the Unicameral," Hartnett said. "In the 20 years I've been there, I think I've seen 141 different senators."

It's when term limits actually take effect that a difference will be felt, he said. By the end of 2008, 44 of the 49 senators now in office will be gone.

"That's going to be the time that you're going to be seeing a problem," Hartnett said.

Supporters say term limits eliminate a "good ol' boy" system rife with back-room deals. Opponents argue term limits will allow legislative rookies to be outmaneuvered by lobbyists and bureaucrats with more experience.

Vrtiska said he has deep concerns about how a lack of experience will affect the Legislature, and recalled his first year as a senator in 1992, when a record 14 freshman joined the body.

"We struggled in that first year," he said. "You don't learn it overnight."

His concern did not change his mind about retiring this year, Vrtiska said. Fueling his decision are his wife's recent health concerns and a desire to travel "while I still can."

While dreams of retired life spur many of the older politicos, others are looking to further their political careers.

Bromm, the Speaker of the Legislature, is leaving to run for Nebraska's 1st District congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb.

He leaves with a feeling of having accomplished his goal of raising the public's respect for the Legislature, pointing to a recent study that gauged the public's trust and respect in their state governments. Nebraska came out on top, Bromm said.

"I think that says a lot. Not for me, but for the institution," he said.

Quandahl also seems to believe his political future lies ahead of him.

"Opportunities for further public service await me," the Omaha attorney said, although he declined to elaborate.

At least one senators is being driven out by the age-old problem of money. Lawmakers make only $12,000 a year.

Maxwell, of Omaha, noted his family has grown from a two-child household to a four-child household since he first took office in 2000.

"Every time I run the numbers for the Maxwell budget, this job just doesn't work in the mix," he said.

Maxwell, who is development director for Jesuit Middle School in Omaha, said he doesn't make money at his regular job unless he's working. He is now running for a seat on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners - a position that pays more than twice that of state senator.

Still, nothing will compare to serving in the state Legislature, he said.

"Walking into this chamber … is like a football player or some other sports figure walking onto the field," he said. "It's that feeling, that excitement, of being in the game."

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