When Nebraska’s youngest legislators formed a bipartisan coalition focused on building an economy that would keep college graduates from leaving the state, they figured their shared experiences as millennials would be stronger than the party differences that divide them.
A few months after joining, the eight millennial lawmakers and three Generation X colleagues are finding that party ideologies are difficult to overcome, but they remain committed to seeking areas where they can work together.
The group, dubbed Next Generation Nebraska, is headed by Sens. Adam Morfeld, a 31-year-old Democrat from Lincoln, and Brett Lindstrom, a 36-year-old Republican from Omaha. Members aim to collect feedback from young people across the state and draft legislation next year addressing millennial concerns.
“We’re looking at job creation tailored to that younger generation,” Lindstrom said. “We’re staying a little bit out of social issues, because any time you get bogged in down in social issues, that’s when the divides start to happen.”
Eight of the state’s 49 senators belong to the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, giving Nebraska the highest percentage of millennial lawmakers in the country.
For some members, avoiding social issues can be difficult, especially among Democrats who think matters like protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees from workplace discrimination are a key to Nebraska’s economic future.
Such views prompted group member Sen. Tony Vargas, a 32-year-old Democrat from Omaha, to sponsor a resolution this year affirming Nebraska’s commitment to recipients of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and he joined the four other Democratic millennial lawmakers as co-sponsor of a LGBT discrimination bill and a resolution supporting refugees.
None of the proposals have been approved by lawmakers.
“I ran my campaign on having a more inclusive Nebraska, and when I talk with younger millennials, I think one common theme is people not only want to live here but that we’re creating a place where they feel welcome,” Vargas said.
Given the ideological divide between the group’s four Republicans and seven Democrats, members collaborated on just a few bills this session, and they agreed it could make agreeing on priorities next year difficult.
That difference in opinion is reflected in group member Sen. John Murante, a 35-year-old Republican from the Omaha suburb of Gretna.
Murante said young people in his district aren’t concerned about LGBT issues when they decide whether to stay in Nebraska. They care more about high taxes, which he said should be alleviated by a tax package backed by the governor and advanced by a legislative committee that would lower the state’s top income tax brackets and change how agricultural land is valued.
“We have to create a tax climate where people are incentivized to start businesses and start careers here,” Murante said. “We shouldn’t be surprised when people are leaving.”
Democrats counter that their younger constituents are more concerned about student loan debt, low wages and a city’s entertainment than property taxes.
“I don’t know of anybody who’s my age or younger who looks at the tax structure of a state before they go there,” said Sen. Sara Howard, a 35-year-old Democrat from Omaha. “That’s odd. I would be shocked if somebody who’s 30 years old was like, ‘You know what, I was looking at the tax structure of Illinois and I decided nope, I can’t do it, so I’m just not going to go to that amazing job in Chicago.’”
Connecting grads to jobs
Sen. Matt Hansen, a 29-year-old Democrat from Lincoln, said graduating from college about a year into the recession and representing a district that includes Nebraska Wesleyan University informed legislation he’s pushed during his three years in the legislature that would create a program matching community college graduates with jobs and increase minimum wage for tipped workers.
“I think we’re a little more skeptical of the economy,” Hansen said. “When people are worried about their retirement nest egg, all of the millennials who are struggling with paying student loans laugh at the notion of having a nest egg.”
Howard said younger senators, especially female legislators, are also more aware of how sexual assault and a broader rape culture affect women. She sponsored a bill this session that allows mothers to prevent their assailants from gaining custody or visitation rights to children conceived through rape.
Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, a 32-year-old who sits on the state appropriations committee, said she hoped younger lawmakers could support efforts to lower college tuition and get ahead of coming trends like automation.
“A big one is making sure we invest in our university system so we don’t have to rely on increased tuition rates and we continue to invest in workforce development,” she said.
One issue that unified group members involved online short-term lodging businesses, like Airbnb.
Sen. Tyson Larson, a 31-year-old Republican from O’Neill, said many older lawmakers clearly didn’t understand such new services.
“When it comes to technology and education and new types of economies, the younger generation definitely has a better gauge of that interest,” he said.