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Partisan motives alleged in push for open ballots in Nebraska's nonpartisan Legislature

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — The last election gave Republicans an even larger majority in Nebraska's nonpartisan Legislature, and now some conservatives are seeking to end the secret votes that make it easier for lawmakers to break from their party when choosing legislative leaders.

Conservative groups and factions of the Republican Party are pushing for a requirement that Nebraska senators disclose how they voted when picking committee chairmen and the speaker of the Legislature.

Supporters insist the effort is a matter of government transparency, but Democrats and even some Republicans see it as a conservative effort to impose party discipline on moderates.

"It's not about transparency. It's about control," said Sen. Bob Krist, a self-described centrist Republican from Omaha who has bucked his party's leadership in the past.

Nebraska's one-house Legislature has no formal party structure or leadership, limiting control by Republicans who dominate the state, apart from some districts in Omaha and Lincoln.

Republican Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said he introduced a bill to ensure that all legislative votes can be reviewed by a senator's constituents. He denied having partisan motives, saying no one in the party urged him to introduce the measure.

"It's just a way of operating that I think works, trying to engage as many people as possible," said Kintner, who has nine Republican co-sponsors. Constituents who learn the committee leadership votes are secret "can't believe it. They think we're open and honest, that we're different from other legislatures."

The lack of party control has allowed Democrats to claim many of Nebraska's legislative chairmanships, including the top seat on the committee that oversees the state budget. Most Republicans in leadership positions are moderates. Last year, despite a large GOP majority, Democrats held most of the Legislature's committee chairmanships.

When the Legislature convened and approved rules for the session, some conservative lawmakers tried to change the voting procedures to end secret votes to choose leaders. That failed, but Kintner then filed a bill with the same requirement, and that will be up for a public hearing Wednesday.

Republican senators who voted against the open-ballot proposal could have to answer to local party activists in the next election, said Jon Tucker, chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party in Omaha.

"I can certainly see some members of the party questioning candidates, and possibly even sitting senators about how they voted," Tucker said. "They shouldn't hide their vote. It does come down to the public trust."

Last month, Douglas County Republicans considered a formal censure vote against Krist after he voted against the proposed rule change when it was in committee. The resolution never went to a vote, but Tucker said it shows frustration among some party members.

Krist has been at odds with his party for past criticism of former Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and for defending then-state Sen. Brad Ashford, a Democrat who was attacked by the GOP during his successful bid for Congress last year. Krist said he and many other senators try to weigh issues on what they consider the merits, rather than voting the party-line.

Groups pushing for a change stress they want openness.

"The transparency of this vote is an important data point for the citizens to determine if the senator in their district is reflecting their wishes," said Matt Litt, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska, a conservative advocacy group.

Litt said openness is particularly important because Nebraska only has one legislative chamber, with no second house to check its power. The one-house Legislature took effect in 1937, at the same time party labels were eliminated.

Senators pick committee leaders and a speaker once every two years. This year, Democrats won five chairmanships out of the Legislature's 14 standing committees even though Republicans now hold more than a two-thirds majority.

Republican legislators dominate even though their party affiliation isn't listed on the ballot. In statewide races where party affiliations are disclosed, Republicans steamrolled Democratic candidates with across-the-board victories in November.

The Nebraska Republican Party passed a resolution in August 2013 calling for a requirement that senators disclose their votes when picking committee leaders. That year, Democrats won the majority of committee chairmanship despite being far outnumbered by Republican lawmakers.

"I think there was some frustration from the 2013 session," said Bud Synhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. "There were people who thought they were going to win, and they ended up losing by 4-5 votes."

Synhorst said the state Republican Party is now focused more on recruiting candidates for legislative races, and is steering clear of trying to influence lawmakers once they're in office.

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The bill is LB649

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