General | May 3, 2022
A man wearing a blue button down shirt and tan slacks is giving a presentation, standing next to projection of a slideshow informing the audience (out of view) about voter identification legislation.
Advocacy | April 11, 2023
Weitz Fellow Voices: Arlo at Nebraska Civic Engagement Table
This is a guest blog by one of our Weitz Fellows, Arlo Hettle. This blog is estimated to take 4 minutes to read.
Hi everyone! My name is Arlo Hettle (he/him) and I am the Weitz Fellow with the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table. In my role at the Table, I have been able to work in our policy department lobbying for pro-democracy legislation and helping to support our Members in their policy work. I love this work and am excited to be able to stay with the Table after my fellowship and grow as an advocate. I spent a lot of time this year learning about the history and rules of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. Nebraska is not an easy state to pass legislation that helps working people and underrepresented communities, and doing so can often feel like an impossible task. However, there are many aspects of Nebraska’s unique political system that still give me hope that we can build progressive change in our state. I want to use this blog post to share some of my favorites.
Nebraska’s unicameral system dates back to reforms introduced by George Norris in the 1930’s and the belief that a one house government would be more accountable to everyday citizens. It’s why you often hear the refrain in Nebraska that “the people are the second house.” Indeed, the rules of the Legislature are set up to allow for participation from the public. Every bill introduced in Nebraska gets a public hearing, the chance for regular people to make their voices heard on what they care about with at least a week’s notice. This is unprecedented in the world of state legislatures. In many states only a few bills get hearings, testifiers at hearings have to be invited, or the public does not learn of hearings until a day or two before and has no time to prepare. In the best committees in Nebraska, lawmakers will thoughtfully listen to testifiers and their testimony will shape the future of the bill. This does not always happen, but when it does, we end up with better bills that reflect the real issues facing Nebraskans. Public hearings are a way for advocates to organize, demonstrate their power, and make their voices heard in front of the legislature. The fact that every bill gets a hearing means that even bills that seem impossible to pass in one session can be used as an opportunity to build support, educate the public, and prepare for the future.
Another wonderful aspect of Nebraska’s state government is that it is officially nonpartisan. While legislators are usually endorsed by and personally affiliate with a party, their party affiliation does not matter in the Legislature itself. Although we are seeing a rise in partisan voting, the Legislature being officially nonpartisan plays out in many important ways. For one, the fact that lawmakers do not caucus by party preserves their relative independence. In most state governments and the national government, there are party whips whose job is to get everyone in their party to vote the same way. No such role exists in Nebraska and it allows lawmakers to take stances that contradict party platforms. For instance, it’s why you see Nebraska electing pro-choice Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats. Theoretically, this allows lawmakers to look at what their constituents want them to do rather than their party. This can sometimes play out in frustrating ways, but it can also lead to victories that would be impossible in a more partisan system. Of course, as polarization increases, more and more partisan influence can be felt, and it is important that we continue to advocate for a nonpartisan legislature.
Finally, the system of direct democracy that we have in Nebraska allows us to bring issues directly to the voters and work outside of a Legislature that is often focused on culture wars rather than improving outcomes for everyday Nebraskans. I had the opportunity in the fall to help with the campaign to raise Nebraska’s minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour by 2026, which passed with almost 60% of the vote. This is an example of how people are not monolithic and can independently evaluate how an issue would benefit them and their community. Direct democracy isn’t easy—it takes organization and resources to get out the vote and educate the public—but it is a path forward. If the Legislature won’t make the common-sense changes that would benefit our state, we still have the opportunity to let the people decide for themselves.
I hope this blog post can serve as a reminder that even when things feel bleak, there are systems in place that allow us to organize and make our voices heard. I encourage everyone to find issues they care about and advocate for them at our state legislature. You don’t have to be a policy expert (I certainly don’t feel like one yet!)—your story, passion, and energy are more than enough. I am thankful that the Weitz Fellowship gave me this opportunity to learn about the state’s legislative process and am excited to continue working with the Table to build a more engaged Nebraska.