Forget everything you know about Nebraska. Placidity, Midwestern aw-shucks-ness, red-meat exports and red-state politics? Nope, nope, nope, nope. In the past few days, the Cornhusker State’s legislature has astonished the nation with the kind of legislative assertiveness that could make Congressional Tea Partiers sputter in rage.
On May 27, the state legislature voted to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of legislation that repealed the death penalty, making it the first red state in decades to bar executions. The next day, the state overrode the governor’s veto of legislation letting DREAMers—immigrants whose parents brought them into the country illegally when they were young—get driver’s licenses. And if that doesn’t have conservatives diving for the smelling salts, get this: These moves came just two weeks after the legislature overrode a veto of a hike on the gas tax.
So in the last few whirlwind weeks, a state mostly known for its corn products and youth football players has banned the death penalty, started giving driver’s licenses to ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS!!, and—take a deep breath—raised taxes. But, despite appearances, this isn’t because carpetbagging liberal interlopers have launched a subversively successful campaign to turn the state into Vermont for college football fans. Rather, the structure of the state’s legislature makes weird alliances and inter-party strategizing the norm, not the exception. And people troubled by the partisanship that dominates national politics would be well-served to take note.
Instead of having a house and senate like the other 49 states, Nebraska has a single, unicameral legislative chamber. On top of that, party distinctions are invisible there: No majority and minority leaders, no whips, no partisan caucusing, none of that. State Sen. Colby Coash said that gives lawmakers significantly more latitude to vote their consciences than legislators in other states have. He said that delegations from other states sometimes visit their Capitol and look on with envy. Those lawmakers, he added, sometimes fear that if they break party lines, party whips will threaten to take away their office space, their staff budgets, and even their parking spots.
“When you don’t have a party boss on either side, I think it frees you to use your mind and to make decisions that you think are right,” the senator said.
On top of that, every bill that legislators introduce gets an open, public committee hearing, so legislators don’t worry that their bills will get shelved indefinitely, and they don’t feel the same pressure to suck up to any party leadership.
“In most states you can introduce anything you want—but if you aren’t in the right party or don’t know the right person, you don’t even get a hearing on your bill,” Coash said. Nebraska’s political culture is very different, he added.
This unique independence played a huge role in the passage of the death penalty repeal, he said. Though the governor has been an adamant, vocal, and dogged advocate of keeping the death penalty, a critical mass of Republican lawmakers didn’t fear bucking him.
“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in a statement after the override vote, USA Today reported. The unicameral was “out of touch” with the state’s voters, he added.
Lawmakers, obviously, didn’t share those qualms.
“The Nebraska structure fosters a culture of people voting on their conscience rather than by politics,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, who helped organize the anti-death-penalty push that unified conservatives and progressives.
Stopping executions was just the start. The legislature’s decision to override the governor and implement a gas tax might be even more surprising, given the pressure national anti-tax groups put on state legislators to resist these kind of hikes. The state currently taxes gas at 26.5 cents per gallon, and it hasn’t raised that number in years. Advocates of the tax hike argued that the state needed to spend more on road and bridge maintenance, and that their options for finding the funds were slim.
“There’s just potholes everywhere here,” said Perry Pirsch, a prominent Lincoln attorney and spokesman for Citizens for a Better Lincoln PAC. “And there’s bridges that are in rough shape and potentially could crumble if they’re not worked on in the years to come, and we were overdue for an increase.”
And Jim Vokal, CEO of the Platte Institute for Economic Research, said his typically anti-tax group favored the hike, but wished it had been part of a broad tax reform bill.
“Typically the unicameral has operated with an independent mindset and that was certainly evident this year,” he added.
The fact that Nebraska decided to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure funding puts it in stark contrast with Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker proposed issuing bonds to fund road improvement projects.
And who’s going to be paying higher gas taxes to drive on hopefully improved roads and bridges in the People’s Republic of Nebraska? Undocumented immigrants are going to be paying (some of) those taxes, thanks to even more bipartisan leadership-bucking. When the legislature overrode Ricketts’ veto, Nebraska became the last state in the country to let undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children get driver’s licenses.
So depending on your perspective, Nebraska is either a corn-fed, post-partisan Utopia or an anarchic pit of death-penalty-free chaos. Nebraskans seem inclined to think the former.
“There’s a lot of people in Nebraska who feel very strongly about their independent-mindedness,” said Ari Kohen, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “And to see it play out this way and have the nation see it play out this way, there’s a pride in that.”