Unicam Focus

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Lesson 4: The Unicameral - Policy Process
The purpose of Lesson 4 is to explore the processes through which legislation and budgets are developed. The lesson discusses the steps in the legislative process in Nebraska and the process through which the state's two-year budget is adopted.
The Legislative Process

In virtually every community across the world, there are decisions that must be made about the use of shared resources. Roads must be built, taxes must be collected, and food must be gathered and distributed. Usually, there are more needs in a community than there are resources. The need for new roads, for example, may be greater than the money available to pay for the construction. Therefore, community leaders make frequent decisions about how to allocate limited resources. In order to make this decision-making process as fair as possible, leaders often utilize a process, a series of steps that are followed by anyone who wishes to allocate resources in a particular way.

State government in Nebraska is no different. There is a lawmaking process - a series of steps that guide the creation of Nebraska laws- through which all bills must go in order to become state law. There are several steps in the lawmaking process in the Nebraska Unicameral:

  1. research and introduction;
  2. committee hearing;
  3. three stages of floor debate; and
  4. approval by the leader of the state's executive branch - the governor.

Below, we elaborate more specifically on how a bill becomes a law in Nebraska.

In order for the lawmaking process to begin, someone must identify a problem or issue, research the matter and develop a proposed solution that could be offered in the form of a legislative bill. Examples include the need for a new traffic law, regulations regarding the insurance on your car and how money for schools is distributed. Although ideas can come from many sources - citizens, interest groups, legislative staff, or legislators themselves - only members of the Legislature can sponsor a bill.

Once a bill has been introduced, it enters the committee stage of the process. First, the Reference Committee determines which standing committee will hear the bill. By law, each bill then receives a public hearing in its committee. Public hearings allow citizens from across the state to give their opinions about bills. They testify at these hearings as to the positive and negative aspects of legislation as well as suggest changes. After the hearing, committees may vote to send a bill to general file with or without proposed amendments, indefinitely postpone (kill) the bill or take no action on it.

Since Nebraska's legislature is a unicameral, many of the checks and balances that would ordinarily be performed by an additional house are performed within the Unicameral Legislature itself. In order to become a law, a bill must successfully pass through its committee and three rounds of floor consideration. These three rounds are, in order, General File, Select File and Final Reading.

General File: General File is the first time the full legislature will have the opportunity to debate and vote on bills. At this stage, senators consider amendments, which may be proposed by committees and by individual senators. Many people consider General File to be the most important stage of the legislative process, because it is where most compromises are worked out through debate and amendment. It takes a majority vote of legislators to adopt amendments, move a bill from General File to the next stage of consideration or kill a bill.

Select File: Select File is the second debating and voting stage. Bills on Select File may be amended, advanced to the next stage or killed.

Final Reading: Before final passage, all bills must be read aloud in their entirety by the Clerk, unless three-fifths of the legislators vote not to do so. This process is called a bill's Final Reading. A bill may not be amended or debated on Final Reading, but may be returned to Select File for a specific amendment.

A proposed constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote of the elected members. Bills with an emergency clause - a clause requiring that implementation of the bill take place earlier than otherwise allowed by law - require a two-thirds vote. All other bills require a simple majority vote.

After the Legislature passes a bill on Final Reading, it goes to the governor for his or her approval. The governor, who leads the state's executive branch, has five days, not counting Sundays, to decide what to do with a bill. If the governor signs a bill or declines to act on it, the bill becomes a state law. The governor may veto a bill, and he or she has the authority to strike specific budget items (line-item veto). The Legislature may override a governor's veto, although it takes three-fifths vote of the body to do so.

Most bills passed and approved by the governor become law three calendar months after the Legislature adjourns for the year, unless they include an emergency clause that specifies a more immediate implementation date.

Critical Thinking Exercise

The Nebraska Constitution allows the governor, who is not a member of the legislative branch of government, to approve or veto a bill passed by the Legislature.

  • Why might the authors of the Constitution have included this interaction in the policy process?
  • How does this interaction relate to what you learned earlier about the national system of checks and balances?
The Budget Process

In order to fund ongoing state expenditures, programs that legislators approve and aid to local governments, money must be available within the budget of the state of Nebraska. Every two years, or every biennium, the Legislature agrees upon a budget for the state. In fact, the primary constitutional duty of the Legislature is to pass the state budget. The state's budget includes a list of all the programs that will be funded and how much the state will spend on each of those programs. The types of programs for which the state of Nebraska pays includes rural economic development projects, budgets for state agencies and aid for Nebraska's schools.

The process through which a budget is approved for the state of Nebraska is similar to the rest of the legislative process - bills are introduced, discussed by committees and in public hearings, voted on by legislators and, if passed, signed or vetoed by the governor. However, because of the importance of the budget to the welfare of the state, the process for budget bills is a bit more complex.

Thousands of funding requests are sent to the Legislature from agencies and entities that receive state aid. Since the state of Nebraska has only so much money, or revenue, to spend on these programs, government officials must prioritize these requests. For example, the governor submits a series of budget recommendations to the Legislature early in the beginning of each biennium. These recommendations are submitted in the form of legislative bills and declare which of the thousands of requests the governor thinks should be funded by state. Since neither the governor nor state agencies can introduce legislation on their own, members of the Legislature introduce the budget recommendations for them.

All requests for funding, or appropriations, are submitted to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, which reviews the bills. Members of the Legislative Fiscal Office staff review the requests and prepare briefings for legislators and the members of the Appropriations Committee, who receive these briefings in January and February. The committee submits a set of preliminary recommendations 20 to 30 days after the governor's budget submission and holds public hearings on the budget. Then, it submits a final package of recommendations to the Legislature either in the form of amendments to the governor's legislation or as new bills. Most appropriations come in the form of one large bill that can be as many as 200 pages long!

At the same time that this process is going on, legislators are reviewing other bills that are not submitted as a part of the budget, but do cost money. The Fiscal Office includes a fiscal note with each of these bills that shows how much money the bill should cost. If a committee advances a bill that has a monetary or fiscal impact, a companion bill requesting an appropriation is introduced. [See table below] This bill receives the same number as its companion bill, but with an "A" added at the end.

How are bills named?
Legislative Bill LB# LB 154
Legislative Appropriations Bill LB#A LB 154A
Legislative Resolution LR# LR 132
Constitutional Amendment LR#CA LR 54CA

By rule, the Legislature must pass appropriations bills by the 80th legislative day in a long session or by the 50th day in a short session. Once a bill is passed, the governor has the option of signing the bill, letting the bill become law without his or her signature, or returning the bill to the Legislature with line-item vetoes. A line-item veto strikes a particular section of an appropriations bill, such as a specific program. Legislators may override these vetoes. All final appropriations take effect July 1 of the designated fiscal year or three months after the end of the legislative session unless the bill contained an emergency clause.

Critical Thinking Exercise

Pretend that you are a legislator with a yearly budget of $10 million. The list below identifies the programs that received funding during the previous year. You can spend less than your $10 million allotment on programs this year, but you cannot go above this number.

1. Funding for new textbook purchases $1,000,000
2. Aid to farmers in areas with drought $3,000,000
3. Replacement of old school buses $2,000,000
4. Aid to impoverished children $5,000,000
5. Repairs on Nebraska highways $2,500,000
6. Purchase of land for state park development $1,500,000
  • Which programs would you fund? Why?
  • Which programs received no funding?
  • Were these decisions difficult for you to make? Why or why not?