Get to Know Your Unicameral: Sen. Steve Lathrop


July 26th, 2019

Sen. Steve Lathrop speaks on the Unicameral floor. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)

In a continuing series on the Nebraska State Senate focusing on Omaha-area legislators, KVNO Student Reporter Emily White speaks with Senator Steve Lathrop on term limits, work within committees, and advocating for his district in the Legislature.

Nearly 20 years ago, Nebraska implemented term limits for state senators, limiting them to two consecutive terms. Those termed out can eventually return to the Legislature—but they have to sit out at least four years, the length of a full term.

Since term limits began, only two people have returned to serve in the Unicameral—North Omaha senator Ernie Chambers, and Senator Steve Lathrop, representative for District 12, which encompasses Ralston and much of Millard.

“When it comes to developing policy, having an historical perspective is important,” Lathrop said. “This year, I noticed that Senator Chambers and I are the only two senators that have ever been through a recession in the Legislature. And so, you see, when you are subject to term limits, you’re only going to be there eight years; you have a shorter range that you’re looking downfield. And you also have less experiences to rely on.

“I think term limits generally have not served the state.”

Lathrop first served his district in the Legislature from 2007 to 2015. Other former state senators termed out have tried for reelection and failed, but not Lathrop, who unseated incumbent Merv Riepe last November. 

Within the Legislature, he is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and much of his work this past session revolved around reforming Nebraska’s corrections department. One of the committee’s successes this year was allocating more money to ‘problem-solving courts,’ an alternative to jail time which could help ease overcrowding in Nebraska prisons.

Lathrop explains: “Problem-solving courts allow us to divert someone that would otherwise be headed to the penitentiary into an intensive program, where they’re accountable to a district court judge directly. And they’re in front of the judge who’s asking them, ‘Are you working, and are you taking care of your family obligations?'”

But he says there is still more work to do regarding prison overcrowding, mentioning sentence reform as something to look at going forward into future sessions, as well as issues of bail and housing reform within Corrections.

Lathrop also likes to maintain a strong connection with elected officials in Ralston and Millard, advocating for them and the communities they lead in the Unicameral. As an ‘urban senator,’ he understands that the priorities of his district often differ from districts in rural areas of the state.

“Douglas County, you know. . .we have some needs,” he says. “And that’s oftentimes difficult for people in western Nebraska to understand what our needs are, because there’s so much different. Public transportation is a great example. That’s not an issue in most cities, except it’s a big issue in the metropolitan area. So those are the kinds of things that as an urban senator—not just from District 12, but an urban senator—we try to advocate for.”

The senator thinks that the Legislature has grown more partisan over the years, mirroring a general shift in national politics. 

“I think that, ultimately, people are getting their news and their point of view from places that they agree with, and, you know, the other people are ‘wrong,’ and not only are they wrong, they’re ‘bad people,'” says Lathrop. “And I really don’t know when we get to a place where people finally get fed up and realize that part of it is they’re playing to a base that seems to be getting their news from one place.”

Despite this, Lathrop, who’s had plenty of time to develop relationships with his fellow senators in the Unicameral, thinks that this division can be bridged.

“I think it still goes back to the idea that you can get things done if you take time to develop the relationships. It’s not all about your own bills. It’s about helping people with their legislation when it’s stuff that you agree with and trying to find compromise.”

Listen to the full interview with Sen. Lathrop, conducted June 4, 2019:

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