Nebraska Legislature – the only unicameral state legislature

As a country, from political aspect, the United States of America is a federation. It has a federal government in Washington, D.C. and state governments in every single state that is part of its territory. Unlike in a unitary system, where the central government has an entire or almost entire control over local governments in terms of internal affairs, in the United States the 50 different states have certain autonomy and sovereignty in decision-making given to them by the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution where it is said that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are preserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”1 Therefore, every state government has more flexibility in decision-making than do local governments in countries with unitary system such as Great Britain, France and others.

The structure of state governments is like that of the federal government. Every state has its own legislature, Supreme Court and president who is called governor of the state and every state has its own Constitution. The system of checks and balances is also present in every state.

Like Congress, state legislatures are bicameral in every state except for Nebraska. The state of Nebraska has a unicameral legislature referred to either the “legislature”, or the “Unicameral”. The only house that it comprises of is called the Senate. In the Nebraska Senate, there are 49 senators elected through district elections. People from every district select one senator.2 Senators’ constituencies comprise of an average of 32 200 people and have an annual salary of $12000.3 The requirements for a person to run for the Nebraska Senate are that he or she be a registered voter and at least 21 years of age. Also, the candidate has to live within the district in which he or she is running or at least one year prior to being elected.4 Moreover, legislative elections are non-partisan. It means that a candidate runs for the Unicameral without his or her party being listed on the ballot. There are primary elections after which the first two candidates face each other in general elections.5

Those are few of the loads of particularities that distinguish Nebraska’s legislative branch from the other legislative branches, including the U.S. Congress. The question is, who is responsible for this, how is it that Nebraska is the sole U.S. state that has a unicameral legislature?

The idea comes from U.S. Senator George Norris who served the United States Senate from 1913 till 1943. Senator Norris was consistent in his idea for having a unicameral legislature instead of a bicameral one in his articles and speeches. There were several reasons why he thought that a unicameral legislative body would be more efficient than a bicameral one: cost and efficiency; elimination of inter-house conference committees; less corruption and more public scrutiny.6

It turned out to be that the unicameral model was really more efficient than its predecessor. Since 1936, when unicameralism started, the number of committees as well as the number of introduction of bills significantly decreased which facilitated the process of lawmaking.7 As a comparison in terms of committees,nowadays the Connecticut General Assembly has 39 committees8 whereas the Nebraska legislature has only 19 standing committees or in other words – the number of committees in Nebraska is reduced to half, not to mention the fact that the need for a Conference Committee is eliminated. Senator Norris noticed abuses in Conference Committees. Those abuses concerned the status quo in the legislative body. No matter how balanced the numbers of legislators from both parties were, these committees gave better opportunities for the ruling party to rewrite legislation to favor its own positions.9 Thus the minority’s impact on the legislative issues could turn out to be so insignificant that a possibility of majority tyranny might be established. Such consequences are threatening to one of the Americans’ core values – democracy. As a result of this possible threat, Nebraska voters fervently endorsed the idea in 1934.

However, the debate about whether there should be a unicameral or a bicameral legislature does not stop with just the Conference Committee. Unicameral legislatures have way fewer committees than do bicameral legislatures. Fewer committees in a legislative body facilitate the legislators’ work because of the less complexity in terms of which committee deals with which issues. When it comes to the decrease of the bills proposed, there was a substantial effect the following years after converting Nebraska’s legislative body from bicameral to a unicameral one. Statistics shows that the last bicameral session passed 192 bills for the cost of $202,593 whereas the first unicameral session in 1937, two years later, passed 214 bills and cost $103,445. This could be interpreted as a double effect – a significant increase in the percentage of bills passed for a little bit more than only half of the prize with a bicameral legislative body. Besides cost and increase in the percentage of bills passed, advocates of unicameral legislatures believe that bills become more available for scrutiny by legislators and the public.10 Among the American society, where democracy is among its core values, better availability of bills to the public is of extreme importance, so from this perspective it looks as if unicameralism is the right choice in the struggle for democracy.

However, this may not necessarily be a positive change. Opponents of such facilitated procedure of making a bill a law say that it is not being turned enough attention to and therefore may be passed on the basis of emotions rather than reasoning.11 After all, it is not important how many bills become a law but how efficient they are.

When it comes to the opponents’ argument that bills might be passed on the basis of emotions, advocates of the idea of unicameral legislature would deny such point to be an argument. They would give a recent example, the death penalty, which is one of the main issues in the state these days. On March 25, 2008, lawmakers rejected an attempt to overturn death penalty. The state’s legislation includes capital punishment. The reason why senators are voting on this law again is that on February 2008 the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the state’s only method of execution, the electric chair, was unconstitutional.12 A lethal injection bill will most likely be proposed.

Capital punishment in the state was on the ballot in the Unicameral twice for the last two years. Last year a bill to repeal it went down on a 24-25 vote. This year the number of senators who voted in favor of repealing it was 20. Among them was State Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha. He claims to have always been an opponent of the death penalty saying that people in other industrialized countries’ legislatures have already found out that “death penalty does not advance the cause of civilization”. Among the opponents of the bill that was supported by Senator Chambers and 19 more senators are Senator John Harms of Scottsbluff and Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk. The two senators’ districts are famous for having brutal murders by men who received death penalties. One of these murders happened in 2002 inside a Norfolk U.S. Bank where three men went and killed five employees and customers “for no reason”.13 Senator Flood even showed a survey that shows Nebraskans’ support of the capital punishment.14 In response to the survey, Senator Chambers answered that he didn’t need a poll to guide his vote on the issue, or any issue for that matter. His answer would most likely be used as a proof to those people who prefer bicameral to unicameral legislative bodies: they would say that in any legislature there could be people who vote on the basis of emotion. As a matter of fact, in a bigger legislature, not to mention a bicameral legislature, such people’s influence would be as insignificant as possible assuming that they will be fewer in percentage of the vote.

A much better proof of the argument that in a unicameral legislature a bill would be more likely to be passed on the basis of emotion rather than on the basis of reasoning is the Nebraska Concealed Handgun Permit Act which took effect on January 1, 2007. This Act is located on the last page of the paper. As mentioned: “The Act automatically prohibits concealed handguns from a variety of listed locations, but also allows employers, businesses and other organizations to post a notice if they do not want concealed handguns on the premises.” Since it does not specify the requirements for the notice, the State Patrol have developed a standardized format and “strongly suggest” that it be utilized. On places or premises where the format is presented, carrying a concealed handgun is prohibited and it is a criminal offense if violated. To opponents of unicameralism, having bills being passed on the basis of emotion rather than on the basis of reasoning as is one of their arguments in support of bicameralism, the reason for the existence of this law is exactly emotion.

Besides aspects related to making a bill a law there are other controversies in the debate about whether a bicameral or a unicameral legislature is better. The lobbyist issue is a good example. Advocates of a unicameral legislative body believe that because of the increased public awareness of what decision is made in a proposed bill as a result of the simplified procedure, lobbyists will not be as influential as they are in a bicameral legislature where there are two houses having similar but also different functions. Also, Former Nebraska Speaker of the Legislature Doug Kristensen said the following in defense of unicameralism: “I sense there’s just as many lobbyists at work in Nebraska than in comparable states. But the Nebraska unicameral system means lobbyists must work harder: it’s not a question of convincing a party leadership, but rather convincing 25 senators for three separate votes. National lobbyists aren’t very component doing that.”15

Opponents counter such statement claiming that it is easier for lobbyists to promote desired legislation in a unicameral rather than a bicameral legislative body.15 A year ago, Common Cause Nebraska supported LB61. This bill would have prevented the utility companies, their executives, and their lobbyists from making campaign contributions to the Public Service Commissioners. Common Cause Nebraska strongly believed that by eliminating those contributions the Commissioners would have to rely on their constituents for campaign funds and spend more time explaining their work to the public.16 The bill, after having been held in committee for several weeks, was defeated by a 7 to 1 vote. Senators who killed the bill considered it “unfair.” Chairman Aguilar, who voted against the bill was quoted as saying: “It picked on one entity when everyone else can accept contributions from whoever they want.” Journal Star journalist Jack Gould considered Chairman Aguilar’s statement not a very good argument.17 Having spent $453,133.24 to Public Service Commissioners and having hired 30 lobbyists to influence a government the size of Nebraska’s raises an entity’s influence. As a result of this influence, senators and commissioners look for contributions from utility companies more than they look for their constituents’ contributions thus not being obliged to spend much time explaining their work to the public. The only losers in this situation are the people who suffer increases of phone, cable and gas bills.

Nevertheless, Nebraska remains the only U.S. state with unicameral legislative body. In my opinion, whether a unicameral or a bicameral legislation is the better choice for states is a never-ending debate because each of the two models has their advantages and disadvantages. And, at the end of the day, whatever the advantages are in one of the two models, they are either not advantages or disadvantages in the other model.


Works Cited



















Nebraska Concealed Handgun Law


The Nebraska State Patrol has issued regulations to implement the Concealed Handgun Permit Act, and Governor Heineman approved the regulations on November 15, 2006. 

  • Sign Requirements – The Act does not specify the requirements for the notice, but the State Patrol has developed a standardized format and “strongly suggests” that the format be utilized.  The standardized form should:


    • Be posted at eye level (54 inches to 66 inches from the floor) at each public entrance to the premises. 
    • Contain a four (4) inch circle with a slash covering a handgun.
    • Contain text giving notice that carrying a concealed handgun anywhere on the premises is prohibited.  The Nebraska State Patrol in its sample notice includes the following: 
    • Carrying a concealed handgun is PROHIBITED in or on this place or premises.
    • Those in control of this property have prohibited permit holders from possessing or carrying a concealed handgun on these premises.  Unless otherwise authorized by law, violation of this prohibition is a criminal offense.
    • Posted pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 69-2441.


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