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Same issues, different lawmakers expected in next year's Nebraska legislative session

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska lawmakers will face many of the same proposals in 2015 that they failed to pass this year, but with a key difference: More than one-third of the senators will be new.

The session that ended Thursday was the last for 17 of the Legislature's 49 members, who are prohibited from seeking re-election after serving two consecutive terms. With a wave of new members every two years, senators and lobbyists get a fresh shot at passing legislation that was defeated in previous years.

"Whether it's property taxes or Medicaid or capital punishment, you're going to have a new cast of characters," said Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams, who leaves office in January because of term limits. "Both sides (of any issue) are probably going to have to pay closer attention to the outcome of the elections."

Adams said the Legislature goes into "education mode" every two years to teach new lawmakers about complex issues, such as state aid to schools. As they learn, he said, the new senators form opinions about policies that may differ from their predecessors.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who pushed relentlessly to end the state's mountain lion hunting season, promised Thursday that he would revive the issue next year. His bill this year was approved by lawmakers but vetoed by Gov. Dave Heineman, and two override attempts failed.

Nebraska's mountain-lion hunting season was unanimously approved in 2012, when Chambers was briefly out of the Legislature because of term limits. Chambers — who is known for his ability to delay and derail bills — said it never would have passed had he been in office at the time.

"Maybe I will flail, maybe I will fail, and maybe I will surrender." Chambers said. "But don't count on it."

Lawmakers are also expected to look at new options for expanding Medicaid coverage to an estimated 54,000 Nebraska residents. The lead supporters have said they plan to talk with Nebraska's next governor about Medicaid proposals, as well as the new state senators who arrive in January.

Heineman strongly opposes the measure, but he's also leaving office because of term limits. Of the 17 senators who are leaving in January, 10 supported Medicaid expansion and seven opposed it.

Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said he expects more debates in 2015 over issues that lawmakers rejected this year.

"I think we'll see things come back up," Schilz said. "The institutional knowledge isn't as vast as it's been in the past. That's one of the things that a term-limited Legislature will have to deal with over time."

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, whose time in office ends in January, said term limits have cost the Legislature a lot of its long-term memory and resulted in higher turnover of experienced committee leaders.

"When you turn people over every eight years, you don't have somebody who's been here 20 years to serve as the voice of the institution," Lathrop said.

Lawmakers will also continue to chip away at the recommendations of the Legislature's Tax Modernization Committee, which finished its work on a statewide tax study last year.

Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, chairman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee, said he plans to lead a legislative study this summer into the way Nebraska's agricultural land is taxed. Hadley, who is returning next year, said he was concerned that ag-land taxes are tied to the land's value, which rises and falls regardless of how much money farmers and ranchers make each year.

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