I spent a couple of hours recently at a confab billed as “Unicameral Prowess 101”, the ostensible purpose of which was to learn how to contact and influence state senators. The affair was sponsored by a distinctly right-leaning group out of Omaha called “Nebraskans for Founders’ Values”, and featured District 49 Senator John Murante as the main speaker/teacher. The ringmaster was a chap named Mark Bonkiewicz, one of NFFV’s founders, and clearly a graduate of several Carnegie courses.
It cost me ten bucks and I got a slick publication entitled “Inside Our Nation’s Only Unicameral”, a pocket-sized booklet containing a staff directory and map of the State Capitol, a printed agenda (which no one paid much attention to), and a couple of single sheet hand-outs with senators’ phone numbers and email addys. Oh, and a really tasty lemon poppyseed muffin and a styrofoam cupful of what might have been iced tea, or possibly flat ginger ale.
I didn’t glean much new information on effecting change in senatorial/legislative behavior, but I was fascinated by Senator Murante’s surprisingly forthright descriptions of how the legislative sausage actually gets made. Elected in 2012 and current chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Murante possesses a wealth of first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Unicameral, and seemed willing to speak candidly on the subject.
Perhaps I am/was naive but I was surprised to learn, for example, that a significant part of the daily workings of the denizens of the Norris chamber is grounded, not, as one might expect, in actual written rules and protocols, but in loosely defined (but rigorously adhered to) fuzzy notions of “traditional” practice. For example, age/seniority plays a powerful role in the doling out of key committee memberships and other plum assignments, with the candidate’s abilities or background being of distinctly secondary importance, even though official (i.e., written) protocols requiring or allowing such cavalier procedures do not exist.
Further, there doesn’t seem to be any formalized method for new senators to make clear their wishes with regard to committee assignments. Apparently, if Senator-elect Gizwhizzy would like to be on, say, the Sewer Committee, it is strictly up to him to contact virtually everyone with any official capacity in the Legislature and let them know his druthers. Then he sits back and waits to see if anyone noticed.
Additionally, we are all way too familiar with the Unicameral’s reprehensible practice of voting for Committee chairs by secret ballot (which Murante voted against when the issue of Legislative Rules came up); Murante indicated that the reason du jour promulgated by those who insist on supporting the secret ballot process was that they (the supporters) did not want to allow party politics to “contaminate” the process of Committee Chair selection. Say what …??!!? Seems to me the whole secret ballot thing is already pretty smelly.
Last I heard, the promulgators continue with the secret ballot so no one’s “feelings” would be hurt. Seems there are as many faux reasons to continue this abominable practice as their are gutless hangers-on in the Unicam. See, I don’t care if a legislator’s sensibilities are offended , or they have no taste for partisanship … or they want to play slap-and-tickle in the cloak room. I care about what my representative is for and what he or she is against. Period.
There were lots of other tidbits concerning our Unicameral that one just can’t get from the official publications. Most were intellectually nourishing and/or mildly entertaining, and I thank Senator Murante for spending time informing us.
If you get an opportunity to attend another iteration of this particular dog-and-pony show, I recommend it.