Senator Jerome Warner

Leaving his mark

BY CHARLYNE BERENS
Alumni News Editor

Senator Jerome Warner died April 20, 1997, in his 35th year in the Nebraska Legislature. Warner was known as “the dean” of the Legislature, an honest and respected leader who had a major influence on the state’s appropriations process, its system of highway funding, its long-term planning and vision and its university.

The following is an excerpt from Warner’s biography, Leaving Your Mark: the Political Career of Nebraska State Senator Jerome Warner, by Charlyne Berens, a member of the news-editorial faculty.

Jerome Warner was known as a passionate defender of Nebraska’s university.

“He has a sweet tooth for the university,” said Warner’s friend, former senator Gary Hannibal, in a 1995 interview. “He always has.”

Doug Bereuter agreed. Bereuter, now one of Nebraska’s representatives in the U.S. Congress, was vice chairman of the Unicameral’s Appropriations Committee during the first two years Warner was chairman.

“He had a more favorable impact on the progress of the University of Nebraska than any other legislator. Period,” Bereuter said.

Throughout his legislative career, Warner used his influence with his fellow senators to try to keep the university strong. When economic times were tough, the university often became a likely target for funding cuts because, as Warner pointed out, higher education is one of the few discretionary areas in the state budget. As chairman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee for 14 years, Warner did his best to protect the university from deep gouges to its budget.

Under Warner’s guidance, the NU budget was deliberated toward the end of the committee’s hearing schedule, “supposedly because it was a big item,” Hannibal said. “In retrospect, I realize it was to wear us down on all the other stuff” and make it easier for the university’s budget request to survive intact. Warner’s interest in the university’s welfare had never been any secret.

Rupp recalled one particular occasion in the mid 1980s when then-Senator John DeCamp offered an amendment to cut $6 million from the University of Nebraska budget. “The back of Jerry’s neck was almost crimson,” Rupp said, but Warner didn’t blow up. Instead, he tried to correct the damage slowly and methodically, working to convince his colleagues of the long-term wisdom of keeping the university strong.

But Warner’s impact on higher education went beyond funding and budgets.

Himself a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Warner exhibited a deep and abiding interest in the state’s system of postsecondary education throughout his 35-year legislative career.

Warner believed his support for the university simply reflected the views of the people of Nebraska. “I think the people of the state take a lot of pride in the university,” Warner said. He admitted, though, that the citizens’ support may not be applied uniformly. Architects tend to value the College of Architecture, lawyers the Law College, agriculture interests the College of Agriculture and so on.

“About the only college that doesn’t have a constituency in the way of alumni is the College of Arts and Sciences, which is the nuts and bolts for everything,” Warner said. Nonetheless, he believed support for the total institution, not just an individual piece or two, is what makes a great university.

Warner’s support for the university sprang from a familiar source: his family.

“I grew up in a home where education was important,” the senator said. His father supported all levels of education during his years in the Legislature, and his mother also was a big proponent of education.

His mother skipped two grades in elementary school, went on to high school and then attended Nebraska Wesleyan. She was the only one of the seven children in her family to attend college.

When Warner was a child, he heard his parents talk frequently about college faculty members and programs. He simply accepted higher education as an essential part of life. Once elected to the Legislature, he was in a position to do something directly to benefit higher education and, especially, the University of Nebraska.

Lee Rupp, the only registered lobbyist for the NU system, said Warner was intimately acquainted with the history of the university. “How do you lobby a person who knows more than you?” Rupp asked.

Before joining the university administration in 1988, Rupp was a member of the Unicameral for five years. During his time in the Legislature, Rupp sat behind Warner and “enjoyed being a Warner student.”

The university is one of Warner’s “pet areas,” Rupp said. “But that doesn’t mean he automatically agrees with everything the university wants to do. If he thinks our ideas are foolish, he tells us.”

On the other hand, if Warner thought the Legislature’s ideas about the university were foolish, he would tell his fellow lawmakers, too. Warner had little patience with politicians who automatically attack postsecondary education in an apparent effort to build their political fortunes. The strategy appeals to some voters, Warner admitted, but didn’t usually help state legislators’ careers in the long run.

Generally, Warner said, the state has done well by the university, although more vigorous support at times could have made a big long-term difference. He remembered a time in the late 1960s when NU was ahead of the pack on a lot of computer technology. Increased funding would have moved the program ahead, but the Appropriations Committee of the time -- well before he was the chairman -- balked, and the lead dissipated.

Had the Legislature supported the fledgling technology program with adequate funding, Warner believed Nebraska might have become a little Silicon Valley.

Had Warner been at the helm of the Appropriations Committee at the time, things might have turned out differently. A decade later, he used his influence as Appropriations chairman to help guide the university to a great deal of success with the Unicameral.

Ron Roskens, president of the University of Nebraska system from 1977-89, remembers how closely university officials worked with Warner during those years. In fact, both Jerry and Betty Warner would meet with university administrators at 7 a.m. several days a week during the session for coffee, doughnuts and 30 minutes of discussion, Roskens said. The discussions were candid.

It was a close, productive comfortable relationship, but it caused a major fight between Warner and his Appropriations Committee in 1979.

Roskens had told Warner during the previous fall, well before the legislative session began, that the chiller that provided air conditioning for much of UNL’s East Campus was inadequate and needed to be replaced. The administrators had a $2 million bid on a new chiller, which they said was substantially less than they had expected. If they accepted the bid during the fall, they said, the university could save several hundred thousand dollars.

The UNL officials asked Warner whether he thought the Legislature would approve the purchase. “I never made a commitment for the committee,” Warner said. But he agreed to hold a special hearing on the matter in January because, by Feb. 1, the university needed either to accept or reject the bid. While the committee’s approval would not have been a guarantee of final approval by the entire body, “it might have been worth the gamble,” Warner said.

So he convened a special hearing in January. “I could not get the committee to take any action. They would not say yes or no.”

After the meeting, Warner told the university officials they should go ahead and take the bid for the chiller because it was such a good deal. Although the committee was not acting on the proposal, he was convinced approval would soon be forthcoming.

As the weeks went on, the committee continued to drag its feet. It’s a fact of group dynamics in the Legislature that, if one or two members of a committee say they don’t want to vote on a matter, something like “senatorial courtesy” sets in, and the rest of the committee will not force the issue.

The committee followed its regular hearings schedule during the next few months, which meant the university’s capital construction bill came at the end of the procedure. When the committee considered the university’s capital construction proposal, Warner could not get the five votes he needed to add the $2 million for the chiller. In the meantime, other committee members had added some budget items with which Warner took issue. The disagreement led to what Warner calls “the biggest fight I ever had with the Appropriations Committee.”

Warner actually voted against the appropriations bill that was reported out of committee, a rare situation for the chairman of the cohesive Appropriations Committee.

The chiller was still not included in the bill, and senators and citizens were accusing the university of underhanded dealings. That simply was not true, Warner said: “What was true was that the Appropriations Committee wouldn’t act.”

What bothered Warner was not that his proposal had been voted down but that the committee had refused even to consider it in a timely manner. “Had they said no in January, that would have been the end of it.”

He planted his feet. When the appropriations bill reached general file on the legislative floor, he argued -- and voted -- against advancing the bill. The measure became so controversial that it couldn’t move one way or the other on the floor -- not without the blessing of the Appropriations chairman.

“A lot of people followed my vote,” Warner said.

The Legislature recessed for a few days, and Warner met other legislative leaders to figure out how to resolve the dilemma. “I remember Frank Lewis said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ and I said, ‘I want the chiller.’”

The chiller found its way into the bill. And the bill passed at the very end of the legislative session.

Warner said he would not have fought as hard for the chiller if the common perception had not been that the university had done something wrong.

Warner’s first love among the state’s institutions of higher education was probably always the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, his alma mater, but he was also unquestionably committed to higher education in general. Throughout his decades in the Legislature, he spent a great deal of time, effort and political capital trying to enhance the state’s system of postsecondary education.

Specifically, he led the campaign to increase the coordination of postsecondary education in Nebraska. It was another complex and controversial issue -- like state aid to education and the Nebraska highway system. Once again Warner was willing to jump into the fray and encourage, cajole and nudge his colleagues into looking at the long-term implications of a solution to what had become an ongoing concern.

The concern centered on a belief in many quarters that Nebraska’s system of postsecondary institutions had, like Topsy, “just growed.” Individual state colleges and universities acted independently of one another. Sometimes several schools offered similar programs and competed against each other. Sometimes no school offered a needed program, leaving gaps in the state’s educational opportunities. Many legislators and state leaders believed more statewide coordination of the postsecondary institutions would help solve both problems.

The topic had come up in the Legislature regularly since at least the late 1930s, but it moved to a front burner in the early 1970s. Governor Exon had established a study group after congressional measures enabled each state to set up a permanent coordinating commission. A bill to that effect -- but giving the commission strictly limited authority -- was introduced in 1974.

Warner didn’t like it.

In 1975 the Legislature created its own interim study committee, chaired by Warner and Senator Frank Lewis, then chairman of the Education Committee. The study committee spent months gathering information from other states about how they coordinated postsecondary education.

“It became apparent to me there was no system,” Warner says. If a state seemed to be successful at coordinating its institutions of higher learning, it was because the people involved were effective, not because a particular system was necessarily superior.

The senator says that came as no surprise to him. In almost everything, he believed, the way a system is organized is not the key to success. ”It’s who you put in there.” Effective people can make a poorly organized system work, but the wrong people can kill even the best-organized one.

So the interim study committee found no magic formula to be applied to Nebraska’s postsecondary needs. Instead, committee members tried to discover what was happening in Nebraska and what kinds of changes the people of the state believed would improve the situation.

The interim study committee held hearings all over the state, Warner recalled. He remembered one especially, held at Kearney. The study committee was represented by three senators: Warner, a farmer from Waverly; a Grand Island businessman who sold plumbing fixtures; and a farmer from Alliance.

One of the first people to testify at the hearing was the president of the Kearney State College faculty senate. “He started out saying he was a little nervous because he’d never appeared before a group of state senators.”

“Think of us as two farmers and a plumber,” Warner said.

“Now, that really makes me nervous,” the faculty member said.

Warner chuckled at the recollection.

“I thought, yeah, two farmers and a plumber really ought not to be out here trying to establish postsecondary policy for the State of Nebraska.”

But Warner said the hearings and the other work of the committee were good preparation for his later work as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Many of the concerns raised at those hearings were later raised before the Appropriations Committee and continue to be raised today.

For instance, at a hearing in Norfolk, one of the speakers said every Nebraskan should be no more than 20 miles from a site where postsecondary courses were offered. “In a state like Nebraska, that obviously was impossible at that time,” the senator said. Today, however, access is far better thanks to telecommunications, “which I believe very strongly that the state needs to expand more rapidly.”

He said he couldn’t understand the flat-out opposition to teaching by telecommunications that he often encountered. Part of the problem was the money needed to finance distance learning, he said, but another part was “the perception -- depending on your age -- that you have to have a teacher in the room to effectively learn.”

That’s simply not the case, Warner said. Young people today grow up using computers and other non-traditional learning methods. Taking classes at a distance by satellite is acceptable to most students and is a way a geographically large state like Nebraska can provide reasonable access to higher education for all its citizens.

But that solution was not available when the study committee was holding hearings in the mid 1970s, and it wasn’t until 1976 that any coordinating legislation was actually passed. When Warner became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1978 he found himself involved in a move to strengthen the supervision and coordination of higher education.

It was an idea he originally did not approve of.

“The first 25 or 27 years I was in here, I was unalterably opposed to a coordinating commission” for postsecondary education, Warner recalled. He believed the authority for higher education should remain with the Legislature. But he also believed something needed to be done to clarify and define the relationship among the state’s postsecondary institutions.

In 1977 the Legislature tried to accomplish that goal by enacting a number of bills to establish the role and mission of each public institution of higher learning. Then-Governor James Exon vetoed the bills.

Warner said he remembers being annoyed with Exon’s strongly worded veto.

It was part of a running disagreement between the two men regarding higher education.

In the early 1970s, Exon had appointed a so-called 1202 Commission, an out-growth of federal legislation, that served as a precursor to a coordinating commission. Warner didn’t like the 1202 Commission; at that time he was still opposed to any kind of coordinating body.

While the senator was chairman of the Education Committee in 1973-74, Senator Frank Lewis had introduced, at Exon’s request, a bill to move beyond the 1202 Commission and establish a permanent coordinating commission. A Warner staff member who attended a meeting about the proposed bill reported that supporters claimed they had lined up 30 votes in favor of the measure.

Warner found out later that supporters had simply talked to 30 senators and that support was not nearly as solid as it sounded. At the time, though, he assumed he could not get the bill killed the bill on the floor.

So he proposed amendments to make every section inoperable.

The amendment passed easily with no opposition from Lewis, who didn’t much care what happened to the original bill. Then the bill itself passed, but the attached amendment made it utterly worthless.

Undoubtedly, the maneuver did not endear Warner to Exon.

In the ensuing years, Warner came to believe the state needed better coordination of higher education, and the result was the role and mission bills. At that point, Warner said, he believed the Legislature should establish role and mission and approve proposed new programs on the various campuses. “I was told repeatedly that was not going to work, but I didn’t believe it,” he said.

The bills would have, in a sense, made the Legislature itself the coordinating body, something Warner later came to believe would have been a mistake. Exon may have vetoed the bills for that reason. Or the veto may have been simply another skirmish in the ongoing battle between the governor and the senator.

Exon’s vetoes were usually strongly worded, Warner recalled. The governor liked to condemn the Legislature for actions with which he didn’t agree. The senator took offense at that, and in the case of the role and mission bills, he voiced his unhappiness on the legislative floor.

“I was wound up,” he remembered. And when he was wound up and angry, no one had trouble understanding what he was saying, despite his reputation for mumbling under ordinary circumstances.

He didn’t remember exactly what he said.

“It probably wasn’t too dramatic, but it seemed so at the time. I did my pitch to override, and Frank Lewis moved to cease debate. He figured we’d hit our peak. And we had it all over with a few minutes after it came back from the governor.”

One of the goals of the 1977 bills -- and another batch of bills in 1978 -- was to avoid unnecessary duplication among programs. One result was that only the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was allowed to offer graduate programs -- except for advanced degrees in education. However, UNL was directed to sponsor cooperative graduate programs with all the other institutions.

Warner thought assigning one institution primary responsibility for the graduate programs would be the best way to avoid duplication and still provide access to students in all parts of the state.

The Legislature provided funding for UNL to operate a master of business administration program at Kearney. Warner and others responsible for the role and mission legislation assumed UNL would allow faculty at Kearney who were already teaching MBA courses to become part of the university’s graduate faculty under UNL’s auspices.

“As it turned out, they wouldn’t accept anybody,” Warner says. UNL’s College of Business Administration started flying faculty members to Kearney to teach classes. Only several years later was one Kearney professor was finally admitted to the graduate faculty.

“There was probably fault on both sides,” Warner said. The faculty at Kearney resented not being allowed to have their own graduate program, and the faculty at Lincoln thought only they should be allowed to teach graduate students.

With those kinds of attitudes on both sides, the cooperative program failed.

About 10 years after the role and mission bills were passed in the late 1970s, the Legislature gave back to Kearney the right to its own MBA program. “I was opposed to it,” Warner said. “But there wasn’t a soul left in the Legislature other than myself who had been involved” in the original legislation. “All the changes sounded reasonable because they (the senators) had no background as to what had been done over time.”

The legislative flip-flop was one of the major reasons, Warner said, that he changed his 25-year opposition to a coordinating commission with constitutional authority.

He came to believe that the Legislature is simply unable to make decisions about higher education on the basis of what is educationally sound. Instead, the decisions would always be political -- at least in part because “there is no such thing as a bad educational opportunity. They all sound good.” Especially to people who have no institutional memory to help them understand why things are as they are.

So Warner did an about-face and, in the late 1980s, became a proponent of a postsecondary coordinating commission. The body was designed to take the politics out of higher education planning much the way the highway legislation had taken the politics out of roads planning.

Before the commission actually came into being, though, Warner came up with another idea, something he thought of while he was farming. “A lot of things I’ve done I’ve thought of when I’m sitting on a tractor planting corn.”

It became so common for him to return to the Capitol with an idea he’d had while working in the fields that staff started teasing him: “If we were working on something and having trouble trying to think of a solution, somebody would say, ‘Why don’t you go sit on a tractor for a while?’”

In the spring of 1989, one of those tractor-induced ideas was to introduce a bill that would make Kearney State College part of the university system. Warner had been pondering a proposal to move KSC from college to university status, but he didn’t want two universitysystems in the state. So he decided to preempt the movement and try, instead, to absorb KSC into the existing system.

The senator asked his staff to see whether the change could be made through legislation or would require a constitutional amendment.

In the meantime, he told Roskens, then president of the university system, what he was pondering. At that point, Warner had said nothing publicly about the proposition.

Later that summer, he found out that the senator from Kearney, Lorraine Langford, plannedto introduce legislation in the next session changing the names of all the state colleges -- Peru, Wayne and Chadron, as well as Kearney -- to universities. Warner decided the time had come to float his proposal as an alternative to Langford’s idea.

He let Henry Cordes, an Omaha World-Herald reporter, know what he had in mind. As he researched the story, Cordes also asked people in Kearney for their reactions to Warner’s proposal, and he quoted Senator Langford’s response: “Over my dead body!” That didn’t surprise Warner.

Later that fall Bill Nestor, then president of Kearney State, stopped by Warner’s Capitol office. Nestor asked whether Warner was sincere about bringing KSC into the university system. Warner said he had been taught, when he arrived at the Legislature, that a senator should not introduce a bill he did not support.

Nestor told the senator he thought there was a lot of support in Kearney for such a move, including from the KSC faculty. “That surprised me no end,” Warner said. He continued to pursue the merger.

The NU Board of Regents was officially neutral, but individual members of the board privately spoke against the bill. The State College Board of Trustees was officially against the bill, although the board allowed Nestor and others from KSC to speak on behalf of the measure.

Once the 1990 session began, the bill was referred to the Education Committee, where it looked as if it might languish. “We couldn’t get five votes to get it out of committee. I think it might have had more to do with me than the issue,” Warner said, implying that some of his colleagues resented his influence on higher education.

Regardless of the reason, the bill was not going to make legislative progress under its own steam. So Warner and Ron Withem, then chairman of the Education Committee, found an alternate mode of transportation. Withem agreed to amend the Kearney State measure to his own bill pertaining to higher education. Warner’s name was not attached to the bill, but the senator worked as hard to get it passed as if he had been listed as a sponsor.

What Warner wanted to do was make good public policy. Having his name associated with the Kearney State bill “wasn’t something I needed...another gold star behind my name -- or a black mark, whichever the case may be. I was just interested in getting it done.”

The bill passed that spring, 36-11. It had a lot of help from Doug Kristensen, then a new senator from Minden, and Withem as well as from KSC Chancellor Nestor and a citizens group from Kearney.

Nonetheless, it was Warner’s backing that made the bill a success. Warner had long been regarded as the “staunchest protector” of the university system in general and UNL in particular. Other senators seemed to assume that his support for the merger meant the university system would not be hurt by the move. Had Warner not proposed the idea, the measure would undoubtedly have failed.

Later that year the bill survived a challenge from the Attorney General, who said making KSC part of the university system would require a constitutional amendment. Ultimately, the matter went to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which, on a split vote, upheld the Legislature’s right to change Kearney State’s status.

It seems fitting somehow that it would be Warner who would shepherd Kearney State into the university system because it was his father who, as a member of the Nebraska Legislature, sponsored the bill in 1903 to create one additional “normal school” at a place that turned out to be Kearney. A normal school was already in place at Peru, and others were established at Wayne in 1910 and Chadron in 1911. The “normal schools” -- including what was to become Kearney State College -- started out as teachers colleges.

But Warner didn’t bring up his family history regarding the Kearney school when he was leading the charge to make the state college part of the university system. He was afraid too many people would have assumed he was making the move for sentimental reasons instead of policy reasons.

“I do think it was the right decision,” Warner said of the legislative action. “Kearney didn’t really fit very well with the other three state colleges. It was so much bigger and obviously should have a broader role and mission.”

The bill that made Kearney State College part of the NU system was one of the major forces behind another major change in higher education, the establishment of a postsecondary coordinating commission.

The relationship arose out of Senator Ron Withem’s bill to which the KSC move was amended. That measure established another study of postsecondary education, 15 years after the Unicameral’s own study had resulted in no action.

By the time the Legislature met for its 1990 session, Widmayer and Associates, the consultants hired by the study committee, had made a recommendation.

The proposal would have established a statewide board of regents with six members elected by the public and five appointed by the governor. The board would have submitted a budget for all seven state schools to the Legislature, which would have continued to appropriate funds for the individual campuses and continued to approve or eliminate academic programs on all campuses. Individual boards of regents for each institution would have set specific tuition rates for the respective campuses, but the overall board of regents would have set general tuition policies to guide them.

Warner and Withem introduced the resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to establish the new structure, but it was not immediately popular. “There was a lot of opposition,” Warner said, not the least of which was from the University of Nebraska. The senators had to work hard to move the bill through the legislative process.

The bill did get first round approval on March 14, 1990, on a 26-19 vote and advanced to final reading on April 2 on a 25-14 vote. But its fate was still far from certain. At that point, Warner told the Lincoln Journal, “I’ve reached the conclusion that coordination is like the weather. Everybody talks about it. Nobody does anything. We simply are not going to address the issue.”

With the end of the session looming, Warner and Withem knew they didn’t have the 30 votes required to place an amendment on the ballot for voter approval. However, an amendment by then-Senator Gerald Conway of Wayne added technical community colleges to the bill and seemed able to attract enough additional votes that the bill might pass after all. That possibility prompted university officials to do some negotiating. On Saturday, April 7, Warner and Withem met with NU Regents Don Blank and Kermit Hansen to talk about ways to make the proposed constitutional amendment more palatable to everyone involved.

After the meeting, Warner and Withem decided to simplify their plan and eliminate from the proposal the separate boards of trustees for the individual campuses. They wrote a second amendment, this time proposing a Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.

The new proposal wasn’t exactly a shoo-in, either. Blank, who had been at the meeting that initiated the new plan, told reporters he was confused and not sure what was actually being proposed. An Omaha World-Herald editorial said the new proposal had come up too fast and advised the Legislature not to put either of the amendments on the ballot that year.

A delay, however, was not what Warner and Withem had in mind. They did not want to see the proposal tabled, and they brought it to a vote.

“We had one argument -- or one discussion, I should say -- on the floor and passed it on the last day” of the session, April 9, 1990.

It was a monumental change, accomplished in record time and under unusual circumstances. “Looking back, I suppose had we had a lot of time to do it, we probably couldn’t have got it done.”

The voters of Nebraska approved the amendment that fall, and a coordinating commission stronger than anything the state ever had tried before became a reality. Warner told the Omaha World-Herald in August 1991 that the primary responsibility of the commission approved by the voters the previous fall “is going to be to say no....We’ve had all the groups we needed say yes. We don’t have the financial resources to have a virtual feast in higher education in Nebraska and retain quality.”

Warner had achieved his goal of taking at least some of the politics and short-sightedness out of higher education policy in the state. Creation of the commission meant, he hoped, that those responsible for such policy would have a statewide perspective on higher education’s needs.

Creation of the postsecondary commission was vintage Warner strategy, another instance in which the senator led the legislature into concrete action that helped advance his long-term goals.

This particular theme had not yet been completely played out by the mid 1990s. Warner believed it would be at least another decade before Nebraskans would know whether the new arrangement works. Its biggest test will be to withstand political pressure that is bound to come to bear on any controversial decisions.

If the commission assures that decisions about postsecondary education are made for educational instead of political reasons, Warner would have been satisfied. Then the commission will right in with his long-term vision for the good of the state.