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Public trust and confidence in government is essential for the success of a representative democracy. At the core of that trust is a transparent set of expectations for ethical conduct of elected officials and public employees with clearly defined consequences for unethical behavior. Voters expect state representatives to be held accountable for their conduct in their official capacity.
Outside of issues of campaign finance under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission there are no ethics rules for members of the Nebraska Legislature. During my tenure in the Legislature a number of ethical issues have emerged with no guidance for resolution. While the current national discussion about workplace harassment has drawn attention to inappropriate behavior in government at all levels across the nation, the need for greater ethical guidelines and enforcement extends much broader.
For example, senators are required to officially disclose any conflicts of interest, but there are no consequences if they fail to do so. Furthermore, there are no restrictions preventing a senator from voting on an issue once they have disclosed a conflict. Senators can and have registered as a paid lobbyist for a special interest while advocating on the floor for those clients in their elected capacity. No guideline exists to prohibit it.
In the last legislative session high profile cases about the personal use of state resources and expectations of a senator’s residency in their district brought to the public’s attention the absence of clear guidelines for conduct that most Nebraskans assume are in place. The typical voter is quite familiar with their own workplace guidelines, and expect similar standards for elected officials.
In addition to the lack of transparent guidelines for conduct, there is no process for addressing ethical concerns among members of the Nebraska Legislature or legislative staff. Illegal activity defined by statute offers recourse via the criminal justice system and courts, but many breaches of ethical behavior may not necessarily be illegal. The absence of a process may mean improper conduct is simply not reported. It also fails to protect the rights of due process for those who may be accused of unethical conduct. Currently handled on an ad hoc basis, allegations may be treated unequally, based on popularity or politics of the individuals involved.
This year I introduced LB 1099 to create an Ethics Board for oversight of state senators and employees of the Nebraska Legislature. The bill requires the establishment of a 7 member Legislative Ethics Board chaired by a senator elected from the entire legislature and 6 members drawn equally from each of the state’s congressional districts. The Ethics Board would be authorized to establish ethical guidelines, develop a process for addressing allegations of unethical conduct, and determine a system of consequences for accountability.
The public should be able to directly see the manner in which senators hold themselves accountable for ethical conduct. There should never be any concern that elected officials are permitted to operate under a different set of standards from the people they represent. Across the country 42 other states have Legislative Ethics Committees to address legislator conduct, and four others have Ethics Commissions that address ethics across state government, including the legislative branch. It is time to move beyond mere discussion and take concrete steps toward protecting the public’s trust in the ethics of our unicameral.