Representing the people

As a native of Nebraska, I grew up in a state where citizens believe in keeping things simple. As a result, I brought with me to the Deep South a conviction that governing the people doesn’t have to be as complicated – and costly — as it is here.

Nebraskans believe in direct democracy; for example, their system includes referendum and recall, for two things, and a unicameral legislature for another. In the mid-Sixties, I was living in Kearney, Nebraska, and finishing my bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism at the University of Nebraska/Kearney when an election took place.

On a paper ballot, I voted on more than 300 items. In a referendum on state taxes, the voters withdrew every one. I’m not kidding: the state was left with no funding, requiring the state legislature to go into session to reform the tax structure. A number of elected state officials were recalled as well, so special elections were held.

The legislature that went into session was a unicameral one, the only one in the United States, with 49, non-partisan members. This system was instituted in the 1930s under the leadership of George W. Norris, a reform governor who worked to eliminate waste in state government.

Norris was all about making the state government responsive to the citizens. Under his leadership, the state instituted 100 percent public power: there are no for-profit power producers in Nebraska. During the times I’ve lived there, the cost to the consumer was less than it is in the Deep South.

In terms of population and an agriculture base, Nebraska is similar to Mississippi, but when it comes to simplicity and low cost of government, the similarity ends. Nebraska was very lucky to have had a George Norris in its history, but it also has always had a much higher percent of literacy and level of education.

Southern voters continue to fund overblown, basically unresponsive legislative systems that need serious changes, including size and organization. Nebraskans pay for 49 legislators, a huge savings to the taxpayers compared to bi-cameral ones. The unicameral legislature has one set of committees with one round of hearings, all of which takes a lot less time and money for one session.

Coming out of a system of segregation and separate facilities, Southern states have been too reluctant, first to require school, then to fund it for all from pre-school through 12th grade. In addition, the education system has too many districts with too much administrative cost.

The situation in state government is on my mind because in Mississippi and other Deep South states the new sessions will start soon. If legislatures truly want to cut spending, let them reform the system.

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