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Clarence F. “Rick” Olson, Fargo, Published August 10 2013

Letter: Unicameral legislature has pitfalls

Columnist Lloyd Omdahl wrote about unicameralism in his column on Monday. (Forum, Aug. 5). The legendary Omdahl is a retired political science professor from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and he also served as the lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

Nebraska has employed a one-house Legislature since Nebraskans voted to create its one-house legislative body; it was implemented in 1937. Prior to that, Nebraska had a bicameral, or the more common two-house legislature.

Members of the Nebraska Legislature are senators. They are elected to four-year terms. They are term limited, in accordance with a state constitutional amendment that was adopted a number of years ago, to two consecutive four-year terms. There are 49 seats, with one senator serving from each legislative district.

One of the arguments against unicameralism, as Omdahl noted, was the lack of a second legislative chamber to provide a check-and-balance in the process. This is somewhat overcome in Nebraska because each bill and resolution that is introduced does go through a lengthy process of debate, amendments and votes before a bill reaches the governor. In Nebraska, each bill goes through three separate readings on three separate days. In other words, Nebraska’s legislature must police itself because there isn’t a second legislative body.

The Nebraska Legislature meets annually beginning in January at the state Capitol in Lincoln. The odd-numbered year sitting is capped at 90 days and the even-year sitting is capped at 60 days by the state constitution. Each term of the Nebraska Legislature spans across both years of a biennium; referred to as the “first session” during the odd-numbered year sitting and as the “second session” during the even-numbered year sitting. Special sessions may be called at the sole discretion of the governor for any extraordinary matters that the governor believes requires lawmakers’ immediate attention.

One of the pitfalls of Nebraska’s system is that extended debate otherwise known as filibusters are allowed. Since there isn’t a second legislative chamber to provide a check-and-balance over the unicameral, some senators have been known to bottle legislation for days or even weeks by use of extended debate. A senator can bottle up a bill for nearly any reason. Here in North Dakota, the floor debate of a bill in both the House of Representatives and the Senate is generally quick. In Nebraska, the debate on one bill or resolution can take hours and even days.

I have observed the Nebraska legislative body via the Internet, and despite the fact that the senators serve nonpartisanly, that state’s Legislature is probably one of the most politicized I am aware of.


Olson is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary and opinion pages. Email rickolson@cableone.net.