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At the end of January all campaign committees in Nebraska filed a campaign disclosure with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. At the end of February, all office holders in the state will file a Statement of Financial Interests that disclose sources of income, gifts, and business relationships. These public disclosures are essential to transparent government. The public has a legitimate right to scrutinize money that is paid to elected officials, as the use of money paid to office holders represents a significant use of power.
As a citizen, you have the ability to go online and identify all sources of campaign contributions greater than $250. The information includes the name, address, and amount of all contributions. Furthermore, any money spent by the campaign in excess of $250 is also documented and available for public examination. State law places restrictions on the sources of campaign donations, as well as restricts the use of those funds to specific purposes. Voters can see for themselves which special interests, companies, and individuals provide financial support to a campaign.
When it comes to financial relationships between elected officials and special interests outside of campaign donations, current Nebraska law lacks transparency. While money contributed to campaigns is regulated, restricted, and documented, financial relationships are not. Elected officials are only required to report sources of income greater than $1,000. The same standards of transparency applied to campaign funds do not apply to financial arrangements for employment, contractual services, or grants that can amount to much, much larger amounts of money paid directly into the pockets of elected officials.
In order to improve the ability of the public to evaluate financial relationships that may influence the actions of elected officials, I have introduced LB 1130. The bill establishes a public reporting requirement based on an elected official’s Statement of Financial Interests. The disclosure requirement applies if the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor of Public Accounts, State Treasurer, Attorney General, a member of the State Board of Education, a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska with the exception of student members, a member of the Public Service Commission, or a member of the Legislature reports income greater than $1,000 received from any 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) tax exempt organization. When such a financial arrangement is present the non-profit organization must report all sources of revenue for the same reporting period.
Compared to many financial arrangements, non-profits represent a tax-subsidized, non-transparent form of directing monetary assets to elected officials in an unregulated fashion. The use of private wealth funneled through opaque and tax-exempt organizations to employ elected officials represents a significant exercise of political power. When voters cannot identify the source of those dollars, the influence on public policy is particularly troubling.
It is legitimate to examine how donations may influence elected officials. The $241,000 contributed by the Nebraska State Education Association to 21 candidates and $110,00 to their political action committee in the last election cycle warrants evaluation, as does the $80,000 contributed by Governor Ricketts to 15 senators. Both pale in comparison to the $269,190 awarded by a single donor, the Sherwood Foundation, to the nonprofit group run by Senator Adam Morfeld. Which has greater influence on the actions of an elected official: a few thousand dollars for campaign stickers, mailers, and mileage expenses, or a quarter million dollars that can be used to pay an elected official’s mortgage or car payment?
It is essential the public have a clear line of sight for what may amount to tens of thousands of dollars in money, benefits, and contracts awarded directly to elected officials by non-profit special interests. It only stands to reason that the internalized policy preferences and agendas of donors to nonprofits that pay elected officials can influence their actions. LB 1130 is an important step to improve transparency and accountability of elected officials and those who fund them.