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Most Nebraskans recognize and understand the three branches of state government: the legislative, executive, and judicial. The Nebraska Constitution establishes each of these branches with equal authority but different roles. Although not a complete delineation of responsibilities, the legislative branch controls the purse, the executive branch manages operations of government, and the judicial branch interprets the law.
The electoral races of state senators and constitutional officers, as well as the appointment of Supreme Court justices, are highly publicized events. The actions of state legislators, statewide office holders, and the justices are under constant public scrutiny, as they should be. Public accountability is essential to effective government.
Despite the attention focused on the branches of government whose offices occupy the state capitol building, a significant amount of state authority lies outside of these institutions. Among the functions of government that impact the daily lives of Nebraskans in very profound and specific ways, many are not directly accountable to either the Legislature or the Governor. Utilities, telecommunications regulation, and public education are three essential public services. Despite the magnitude of their importance, they are managed by independently elected and operated governance structures.
Do you know the name of your Public Service Commissioner, State Board of Education representative, or University Regent? Are you aware of their positions on taxes, regulation, and transparency? Do you know how they have voted on issues of importance to you and your family? If not, do you know readily where to find out and how to contact them?
Known as “non-code agencies”, the Public Service Commission, Department of Education, and University of Nebraska are three of the largest agencies in state government. They are independently managed by publicly elected boards that hire their own administrators, manage their own budgets, create their own policy, and set fees the public is required to pay.
The Public Service Commission, among many duties, creates policy that impacts your phone service, broadband, utilities, and commerce. They determine, collect, and spend fees that you pay every month, including the Universal Service Fund you see on each telecommunications bill. The State Board of Education determines the standards for your public schools, implements policy, and administers the learning assessment of Nebraska’s children. University Regents determine how over half a billion taxpayer dollars are spent, set tuition rates, hire lobbyists, and determine the social priorities of a public institution that reaches into almost every community in our state.
While the Legislature has the sole authority to appropriate taxpayer dollars, oversight of the individual spending decisions is indirect at best. The balance between oversight and independence is not clearly defined, and has been the subject of legal battles and court rulings spanning many decades. Constituents frequently contact me with questions or issues that fall under the jurisdiction of these agencies. My ability to assist is often limited. As a state senator, I don’t even always get a response to my inquires of non-code agencies.
Ultimately, the direct line of accountability lies between the voters and the individuals elected to govern non-code agencies. Given their impact on your daily lives and your family budget, individuals elected to the Public Service Commission, State Board of Education, and Board of Regents should publicly state their positions and be fully transparent about their official actions. You should be able to readily access how they vote, and the consequences of their actions to you, your family, and your business should be justified to constituents. You should know how they are lobbied and influenced. Voters should contact them directly with their concerns and hold them accountable for their actions.
Concentration of power in any single area of government is not good for democracy. Thus, a wide variety of elected bodies can serve an important role. However, the daily functions of the independent agencies that operate outside of the capitol building receive too little public scrutiny.
Given their impact, it is time for that to change. I will continue to publicly ask for information to inform voters. Non-code agencies should make voting records of officials, both in committees and the board as a whole, readily available to all voters. They should not be buried in meeting minutes. Voters should request these state level elected official’s positions on record, not just campaign platitudes during elections. The more information voters have, the better our representative government functions for all Nebraskans.