Erdman says state should rethink government structure as population shifts more urban

With U.S. Census data set to be released later this year, a state senator from the Panhandle is putting out the idea of moving Nebraska to a two-house state government. 

Steve Erdman of Bayard says Nebraska needs to rethink the structure of its state government. In his latest column, Erdman suggests the state look into returning to a Bicameral, or two-house form of state government. 

The Panhandle-based senator in concerned about the growing divide in population between urban and rural areas of the state. In his column, Erdman writes the nine counties are projected to see growth above five percent with most being in the state's urban areas. 

Meanwhile, western Nebraska is projected to see a decline in residents, with eight counties out west losing over five percent of its residents since the last census. Erdman says in western Nebraska only Banner County is projected to see an increase in population. 

According to LB 103, Nebraska's legislative districts should include about 37,000 people each. 

With the state's districts based off population, Erdman says this a worrying trend for western and rural Nebraskans, writing more districts will likely be added to urban areas, while rural-based districts will need to grow larger to meet the population requirements, lowering rural representation in the legislature. 

Erdman writes having just one house in the state government is part of the issue. 

"The problem is perpetuated by our Unicameral system of government, which is designed only to represent the population and not the individual counties of Nebraska, Erdman said in his column. 

The state senator from Bayard says adding a second house to the state government, which would give each county the same amount of representation could help offset the rural urban divide of representation in the current unicameral. 

"This population shift from rural Nebraska to urban Nebraska has been taking place ever since the 1980’s, and the problem has only grown worse over time," Erdman wrote.

Nebraska's legislature will re-convene in September to redraw the state's district lines once the latest U.S. Census data is released. 

The state's government was originally a two-house system, but has been a Unicameral since 1937. George Norris of McCook, then a state senator, led a movement to remove one of the houses to make the state government less expensive and more efficient. 

Nebraska is the only state in the country to have a Unicameral instead of a Bicameral state government. 

You can read Erdman's full column below: 

The first session of the 107th Legislature has come to an end…well, almost. There remains one matter yet to be resolved by the Unicameral Legislature this year. It is the matter of redistricting. Once every ten years legislative district lines get redrawn in order to better comply with the changing demographics of our state.

Legislative district lines are determined by population. Ten years ago, LB 703 determined that the ideal size of Nebraska’s legislative districts would be 37,272 people. So, the legislative district lines were drawn ten years ago in such a way as to reflect as closely as possible populations of this size. Because the U.S. Census has yet to be released and is projected to come out later this summer, the Unicameral Legislature will reconvene in mid-September for a special session to redraw these district lines.

It is no secret that Nebraska’s rural population has been declining while Nebraska’s urban centers have been growing in population. Nine counties are projected to see growth above five percent when the U.S. Census gets released later this summer and most of these counties represent Nebraska’s urban centers. Meanwhile, Western Nebraska is projected to decline the most in population. Eight counties in Western Nebraska are projected to see population declines in excess of more than five percent, while two counties will see population declines in excess of two and a half percent. Only Banner County is projected to see an increase in population this year in Western Nebraska.

These rural population declines are bad news for folks living in Western Nebraska. While new legislative districts will likely be added to Douglas County and to Lancaster County, legislative district lines in rural Nebraska will likely have to encompass more real estate in order to meet the new population requirement. This means that folks living in Western Nebraska will have even less representation in Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature.

Nebraska needs to rethink the structure of its state government. This population shift from rural Nebraska to urban Nebraska has been taking place ever since the 1980’s, and the problem has only grown worse over time. Furthermore, the problem is perpetuated by our Unicameral system of government, which is designed only to represent the population and not the individual counties of Nebraska.

When our founding fathers created our federal system of government they split Congress into two houses in order to safeguard America’s smaller, agricultural states from being railroaded by those states with higher populations. The U.S. House of Representatives was created to represent the people, while the U.S. Senate was created to represent the individual states. Consequently, what might be considered good legislation by the people had to be checked by the individual states. James Madison understood this dilemma well and wrote about it in Federalist Paper Number 62 concerning the creation of the Senate saying, “A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger states, is not likely to be obtained from the smaller States.”

Nebraska’s Unicameral system of government was enacted in 1937 on the advice of Sen. George Norris of McCook. At that time, the Unicameral system was attractive as a way to save the State money and to make the legislative process more efficient. However, as the rural vs. urban divide continues to grow in our state, returning to the old Bicameral system of government should become increasingly more and more attractive to folks living in rural Nebraska.

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