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Nebraska’s unicameral: Still progressive after all these years?

Nebraska’s unicameral: Still progressive after all these years?
Nebraska author Charlyne Berens discusses the state unicameral Jan. 23 as part of the Nebraska Lectures: Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The speaker series is regularly offered twice a year but has expanded in celebration of the university’s 150th anniversary in 2019. (Collin Spilinek/Nebraska News Service)

Berens opens N150 lecture series


LINCOLN–When the Nebraska Legislature switched to a unicameral system in 1936, it sent a message about the rising progressive and populist movement, Nebraska author Charlyne Berens said during a lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Wick Alumni Center.

“Nebraska was on its way to showing the rest of the nation what a progressive legislature looks like,” she said. “But has it lived up to that? Is it still progressive after all these years?”

Berens, an emeritus professor and former associate dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, answered this question in her Jan. 23 presentation, “Nebraska’s Unicameral: Still Progressive After All These Years?”

Berens has written two books, including “One House: The Unicameral’s Progressive Vision for Nebraska,” which was published in 2005. Her talk, part of the “Nebraska Lectures: Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series,” was introduced by UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green.

Nebraska is unique in that it is the only state to use a unicameral, as opposed to a bicameral. Bicameral systems use two chambers for government, while unicameral systems only have one.

Beren began by discussing the Legislature’s change to a unicameral system after a 1934 vote, thanks to efforts by George W. Norris, who served as a United States Senator for Nebraska from 1913 to 1943. This transition, she said, took place mostly because of progressives who wanted the government to be open to scrutiny and the consultation of experts.

This change was also made due to the rise of populism, or the belief that the government should represent “the people,” Berens said.

Berens said, for the most part, Nebraska has been able to successfully run a unicameral legislature.

“Even if it has a profoundly effective structure and thoughtfully designed rules, no institution is perfect,” she said. “But ours does pretty well, even after all these 80 years.”

Berens cited several factors for the success of the unicameral system. In this system, every bill gets a public hearing and meetings cannot be in secret, she said.

The nonpartisan nature of the Legislature has also helped it, Berens said, as senators may be expected to line up with party ideas, but are not told how to vote by leaders. This has led to people voting with their conscience, she said, rather than politics.

In a survey conducted in 2001, Berens said she asked senators how they choose leaders for certain issues if party is not taken into consideration.

“They said that the most knowledgeable senators, not the most senior or the most ideologically pure, become the body’s leaders,” she said. “That really echoes the populist and progressive philosophy that underpins this institution.”

Berens said one of the issues today that Norris might be disappointed in involves wages for senators. Because raising salaries involves changing the constitution, she said there hasn’t been a pay increase since 1987, when it went up to $12,000.

“That’s way below minimum wage. Way below,” Berens said. “Because this is not a part-time job, even though it might look like it.”

Despite this, Berens said Nebraska has been able to use the unicameral to its advantage since its adoption.

“I think George Norris would be really proud of the institution he helped to create and the way it’s continued to function through the decades,” she said, “and I think we should be too.”



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