Feb 26, 2024

Lawmakers create special committee for full review of Nebraska Legislature oversight

Posted Feb 26, 2024 3:00 PM
 State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, the speaker of the Legislature, gives a closing speech on the 2023 legislative session. June 1, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, the speaker of the Legislature, gives a closing speech on the 2023 legislative session. June 1, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Zach Wendling

Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Lawmakers approved a special committee Friday designed to fully review the Nebraska Legislature’s oversight as it continues to clash with the executive branch.

State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, speaker of the Legislature, introduced Legislative Resolution 298 to appoint a Legislative Oversight Review Special Committee. While originally proposed as a nine-member committee, an amendment adopted 37-1 bumped membership to 15 members who will review oversight through the end of the year.

Arch said outside counsel recommended forming the group so lawmakers can review their oversight authority, describing it as an opportunity to step back, reassess and be more effective.

“Rather than operating a structure that has been built over the years in reaction to events, the Legislature can now enter a deliberative process to structure a proactive system,” Arch said.

He predicted that lawmakers could fix issues in 2024, but they’d return to fix others soon after.

The special committee will issue a report, with recommendations, no later than Dec. 15, including insight into the:

  1. Structure and organization of the Legislature’s oversight functions.
  2. Oversight in other state legislatures.
  3. Authority of legislatively created boards and commissions to conduct oversight.

‘Right path forward’

Last August, Attorney General Mike Hilgers issued an opinion stating that the Legislature’s two inspectors general were unconstitutional.. The inspectors general were created to probe problems within the state prison system and cases of abuse and neglect involving state wards and to report their findings to state lawmakers

Though Hilgers’ opinion does not carry the weight of law, the state’s executive branch clamped down and closed access to the oversight offices.

Then a week ago, Arch and State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, chair of the Executive Board, signed a memorandum of understanding with Gov. Jim Pillen to restore access, which State Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte, an Exec Board member, applauded Friday.

Jacobson said the Legislature’s top leaders navigated the issue methodically, “without blowing things up.”

“This is not a permanent fix, but this is a path forward,” Jacobson said. “I think it’s the right path forward.”

Concession of authority?

State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh and John Fredrickson, both of Omaha, said the executive branch is breaking the law, which, if allowed to continue, dilutes or strips the Legislature of its power.

“They thumb their noses at us. They violate the law at every turn,” Cavanaugh said. “We need to stand together and we need to stand strong for the people of Nebraska.”

Legislative Oversight Review Special Committee

The 15-member special committee consists of the following state senators:  

Full Executive Board

  1. Ray Aguilar (chair)
  2. John Lowe (vice chair)
  3. John Arch (speaker)
  4. Beau Ballard
  5. Eliot Bostar
  6. Rob Clements
  7. Mike Jacobson
  8. Merv Riepe
  9. Julie Slama
  10. Tony Vargas

Two committee chairs

  1. Ben Hansen (Health and Human Services Committee)
  2. Justin Wayne (Judiciary Committee)

Three at-large members

  1. The Executive Board will appoint these lawmakers

Fredrickson added that just by engaging in the process, the Legislature is conceding “a great deal of power.”

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the “delicate game” when it comes to separation of powers has already been decided, at least for the Nebraska Department of Corrections, because the Nebraska Constitution explicitly protects the Legislature’s management power, and, by extension, its oversight.

“The Constitution is on our side,” Wayne said. 

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha similarly said it seems as if the Legislature is “slowly and slowly and slowly” giving up its authority when it comes to corrections.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who clashed with Hilgers at a forum following his August opinion, accused the executive and judicial branches of deciding “to work with and in concert” to shut down oversight rather than have to explain an IG report that may find mismanagement.

“That’s what all this is about at the end of the day,” Conrad said. 

“Think about the time, energy, effort, resources and political capital … across all branches of government (that) caused confusion and chaos and disruption because the executive couldn’t be bothered to suffer through one day of bad press about mismanagement a year,” Conrad added.

Legislature not ‘rolling over’

Arch, in a fiery speech on the floor, said the Legislature’s balance and separation of power is “out of whack” and must be reestablished, but he pushed back on an accusation that lawmakers are “rolling over to the administration.”

The memorandum of understanding, he said, is an effort from the Executive Board to avoid litigation and negotiate a better path forward while more quickly restoring oversight access.

Next year, he said, the Legislature will address the oversight committee’s report.

“At the end, we will find that spot where we fulfill our duties constitutionally — with full authority that we have as developed in the Constitution — so that we can do our work,” Arch said.

LR 298 was adopted 38-1