LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature's shift to a more moderate, independent-thinking and urban body was evident in election of its leaders on Wednesday.
Topping the list was the election, for the first time in decades, of an Omahan who is a Democrat, State Sen. Heath Mello, to head the influential Appropriations Committee, which draws up the state budget.
In other races to elect legislative leadership, votes trended away from senators who have supported Republican Gov. Dave Heineman's conservative agenda.
While the unique, one-house — and officially nonpartisan — Unicameral Legislature has 30 Republicans, 17 Democrats and two independents, leadership of the 14 standing committees and two top leadership posts went to the Democrats, by a margin of 8-7. Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, an independent, won re-election as chief of the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a Democrat who was re-elected chairman of the Business and Labor Committee, said the votes were an affirmation of the shift begun last spring when lawmakers overrode vetoes by the governor of bills that allow cities, with a vote of the people, to increase local sales tax and provide prenatal services for children of illegal immigrants.
“This was sort of an untethering of the Legislature from the executive branch, which is good for the people,” said Lathrop, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2014.
Mello, who has clashed with the governor on some issues in the past, said that the Legislature picks its leadership based on personality rather than politics.
Some observers said the Nebraska Republican Party made a mistake last month when it warned its members in the Legislature that they needed to elect GOP senators as committee chairs.
Interjecting party politics into the selection of legislative leaders, which is done by secret ballot, has backfired in the past, according to veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe.