LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska lawmakers kicked off the 2015 session on Wednesday with a new speaker and looming debates over property tax cuts and the state's troubled prison system, among other priorities.
It's the first session for more than one-third of the Legislature and for Republican Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts, who takes office Thursday.
Overhauling the prison system will be a top issue because of overcrowding and mismanagement within the Department of Correctional Services, including the early release of hundreds of inmates. Meanwhile, Ricketts has said property tax reductions are his No. 1 priority this year, based on feedback he heard on the campaign trail and public comments made during a recent legislative tax study.
Lawmakers have to approve a new two-year state budget. They're also likely to debate new abortion legislation, K-12 school funding and gambling.
Sen. Galen Hadley, of Kearney, was selected as the new Speaker of the Legislature, defeating state Sen. Colby Coash, of Lincoln, in a 30-19 vote. Hadley, 72, replaces former Sen. Greg Adams, of York, who left office due to term limits.
In his floor speech, Hadley pointed to his experience as a high-ranking administrator at several universities and his tenure as Kearney's mayor.
"I see the position as a leadership position whose primary responsibility is to help all 48 senators do their outstanding work for the citizens of Nebraska," Hadley said of the role, which sets the Legislature's daily agenda and determines when legislation gets debated. Past speakers have also played an important role in brokering deals when lawmakers reach an impasse.
Sen. John Murante of Gretna became the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee chairman on Wednesday, and said it will take a serious look at unfunded state mandates on local governments.
Many cities and counties say those mandates have increased their costs and resulted in higher property taxes. Murante said he's confident lawmakers will see the need for reforms, though they still need to decide how to proceed.
"I don't think there's a ton of people who believe the status quo is good enough," Murante said.
Other legislation he expects to see includes voter ID legislation as well as a bill to move Nebraska into a "winner-take-all" electoral vote-awarding system in presidential elections.
The 18 freshman senators include attorneys, bankers, former school administrators, farmers and ranchers. Republicans gained five seats in the November elections, so the officially nonpartisan Legislature is now comprised of 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats and one independent.
Some freshmen hit the ground running. After he was sworn in, Sen. John S. McCollister of Omaha talked about a bill to reduce Nebraska's license plate fees.
The new senators "are incredibly energetic," said McCollister, who is the son of late former U.S. Rep. John Y. McCollister. "It's going to be a good group. I think you're going to see some high-quality work out of this Legislature."
Lawmakers cast their votes for speaker and committee leaders in private, despite calls from conservative groups and some lawmakers to make them public.
During the 2013 committee elections, Democrats won chairmanships in nine of the 14 standing committees despite a GOP majority, and many of the Republicans who won were considered moderates.
Sen. Bill Kintner, of Papillion, said he wouldn't disrupt the election on the session's first day, but the Republican urged his colleagues to change the legislative rules before the next votes in 2017.
This year, Republicans will hold nine committee chairmanships, and Democrats will have five.
Only two committee races were contested: Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo defeated fellow Republican Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft to lead the Agriculture Committee. And Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a Democrat, reclaimed his chairmanship of the Retirement Systems Committee over freshman Sen. Brett Lindstrom, an Omaha Republican.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a Democrat, was unopposed in his re-election bid for the powerful Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget.
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet for 90 days, with the session scheduled to end June 5.