Get to Know Your Unicameral: Sen. John McCollister


September 27th, 2019

Sen. John McCollister (Photo: 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 John McCollister on some issues the state faces in the near future, such as nonpartisan redistricting and renewable energy.

About a month after my conversation with John McCollister in KVNO’s studio, a flurry of tweets from the senator made national headlines. 

He criticized the Republican Party for enabling white supremacy and implored fellow party members to speak out against racist and immoral activity, specifically mentioning President Trump as someone who “stokes racist fears in his base.”

In response, the Nebraska GOP told him to re-register as a Democrat. McCollister later wrote in the Omaha World-Herald’s Public Pulse that he’d reconsider his party affiliation after the next election.

We spoke in July about partisanship, as well—in this case, related to nonpartisan redistricting after the census next year. McCollister worked on several redistricting bills this past session and hopes to present a consolidated piece of legislation to the Unicameral’s Executive Committee in 2020.

“We need to predict some of the some of the ways people will try to influence how the redistricting occurs,” he says. “The members of that committee is a big consideration; we’ll probably end up with five Republicans and four Democrats. But how they operate together. . .this is something that we need to carefully watch and make sure that no political party gets a huge advantage that will impact the state for ten years.”

McCollister serves Legislative District 20, an area of central-west Omaha stretching from 72nd to 144th Streets which includes the Westside School District. This is his second term as that district’s senator, re-elected in 2018.

“It’s got very interesting demographics, some very high income areas of the city, and then some of the lowest,” says McCollister. “So that makes for interesting dynamics in the Legislature. But it’s a good area, and I think I fit the district pretty well, in terms of my skills and my interests.

“And, you know, given the fact that I was reelected 60-40 last year, perhaps that’s the case.”

Before his time in the Unicameral, he was a member of the Metropolitan Utilities District board for nearly thirty years. He’s sponsored energy policy bills in the Legislature, including one in 2015 that he says “leveled the playing field” for renewable resources like wind and solar to compete with coal and natural gas.

“Nebraska has had the fastest growing renewable energy situation in the entire country,” he says. “We are number three in wind resources, and we need to fully capture that source of energy to make our environment more clean and more healthy.”

The next step, McCollister says, is using net metering to incentivize individual energy contributions to the grid through solar panels and wind turbines.

And moving outside of energy policy and looking at the future of the state as a whole, he backed up what many have said is key to keeping jobs and industry within Nebraska: an expansion of trade education, training people for specialized jobs.

“I think if we can train people, we’ll end up seeing more companies come into the state,” he says. “The data center that’s getting ready to go into Lincoln—why are they coming into Lincoln? Because they recognize that Nebraskans have a great work ethic.”

Looking back at this past session, McCollister described the mood of the body as much improved from previous years. The greatest shortfall, he says, was that the Legislature couldn’t find a solution to high property taxes—one of the most pressing issues on the table in 2019.

“Well, it’s a heavy lift, I have to admit, so it may be a two session kind of issue. But I’d say that is our failure,” says McCollister. “And, you know, if we could have gone an extra six days—because we adjourned six days early—maybe we could have done better in that regard.”

The Nebraska Legislature, of course, is officially nonpartisan. However, parties still have an influence on legislators, and tensions run high when polarizing issues arise.

McCollister, who will be term-limited out of the body in three years, does think there’s things to improve about the Unicameral. But overall, he calls it a “capstone of his career.”

“It’s the best form of legislative government, I think, in the country. It’s definitely not perfect. But we do far better than about any other state in terms of our Legislature.”

Listen below to the full interview with Sen. McCollister on July 12:

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