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Compared to many states and the federal government, Nebraska has relatively few laws regarding conflicts of interest, reporting of interactions between elected officials and lobbyists, and rules regulating the influence of special interest on lawmakers. During my three years in the Legislature a number of ethical issues have emerged with no guidance for resolution. These include concerns of conflicts of interest, senators registering to lobby while in office, personal use of state resources, and expectations of residency within a district among others.
Outside of issues of campaign finance under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Committee, there are no ethics rules for members of the Nebraska Legislature. Consequently, there is no process for addressing ethical concerns among members of the Nebraska Legislature unless it is illegal activity defined by statute via the courts.
Nebraska voters have the expectation that their interests are being represented by their elected officials, not those of paid special interests and lobbyists, and free of quid pro quo arrangements. Statutes and rules that reflect that intention are conspicuously absent. Additionally, the public assumes there are rules and a procedures in place for ethical conduct, even though none exist. Public confidence in the legislative process necessitates greater transparency in the ethical expectations of state senators.
Among the ethical issues unaddressed in current Nebraska law is known as the “revolving door”. This is the practice of elected officials and senior staff becoming paid lobbyists directly after leaving office. Immediately leveraging the influence and insider knowledge gained in public service is prohibited by 34 states and the federal government. Nebraska has seen two high profile examples of the revolving door in action in recent months, as former state senator Heath Mello has been hired as chief lobbyist for the University of Nebraska, and former director of the Department of Economic Development, Courtney Dentlinger, has been hired as the chief lobbyist for the Nebraska Public Power District.
In keeping with my firm belief that the lawmaking process in Nebraska should be transparent, responsive, and devoid of undue influence by special interest groups, I have introduced legislation to close the revolving door each of the past two years. My legislation would prohibit elected officials from taking a job as a paid lobbyist for two years after leaving office. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, State Treasurer, Secretary of State, Auditor of Public Accounts, and members of the Legislature, Public Service Commission, State Board of Education, and Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska would be required to have a two year “cooling off period” before being paid to lobby. Their staff would be prohibited for one year.
The language of my bills mirror the federal statute passed in 2007. In Washington, D.C., varying revolving door statutes have dated back to as early as 1872. In addition, 34 other states have enacted “cooling off periods”, yet Nebraska has none. For a body that prides itself on transparency, we are failing when it comes to public expectation in this regard. The chairman of the Government Committee, John Murante, has failed to bring the bill to vote by the committee in either year. I am not the first senator to introduce a bill requiring a cooling off period before lobbying. In 2008, Senator Bill Avery introduced similar legislation which did not advance from the Government Committee. Four of the members of that committee later went on to lobby after their time as senator.
Influencing policy is big business in Nebraska. In 2016 over $16.7 Million was spent lobbying Nebraska lawmakers. Establishing a clear distance between those trusted to make laws and those paid to influence them reduces the opportunities for quid pro quo arrangements. Even the perception of impropriety degrades public trust in our government and the integrity of elected officials.