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The lawmaking process should be transparent and devoid of undue influence by special interest groups. The annual lobbying report of Common Cause Nebraska released this week provides insight into the ever-increasing amount special interests spend lobbying elected officials. In 2017 a record high $17,446,838 was spent on lobbying in Nebraska. This represents a 26% increase since 2013. In total, 377 paid lobbyists representing 550 special interests sought to influence the decisions of your elected officials.
During my four years in the Legislature I have introduced a number of measures intended to increase voters’ ability to clearly see how special interests are influencing state policy. A quixotic effort, none of the bills were ever advanced from the Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee. The data contained in this year’s Annual Lobby Report by Common Cause underscores the urgent need for greater transparency.
Aside from the shocking amount spent on lobbying, the source of the bulk of the money is equally jarring. Of the top ten largest spenders over the past five years, half represent political subdivisions. The biggest spender is the League of Municipalities, which is funded by Nebraska cities and towns. The University of Nebraska is the fourth biggest spender, while the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska State Education Association are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively. Omaha Public Power is ninth.
Voters are often unaware how much of their tax dollars are used to pay for lobbying activities. The use of taxpayer dollars for lobbying is not new, but it obscures the policy process. In some cases, public dollars are used to employ full time lobbying staff. In addition, most also hire private contract lobbyists. The ever increasing amount of public dollars used to lobby state government indicates the success of the effort to keep state money flowing to the local governments that spend your taxes on lobbying.
A look at the lobbying efforts of some public school districts provides insight into why revising Nebraska’s dysfunctional school funding formula to distribute equalization aid to all schools has been unsuccessful. $2,399,081 has been spent over the past five years by 17 schools districts and the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy County. The seven biggest spenders–Omaha, Lincoln, Millard, Bellevue, Papillion, Ralston, and Grand Island–represent 70% of that total.
In the name of open government, political subdivisions using money derived from public funds should file the entire contract for public evaluation. All Nebraskans should be able to clearly identify how public money is used to lobby. Voters should be able to take this spending into account when voting for elected officials that serve on these local boards and councils.
For Nebraskans who wonder why income tax cuts continue to drag down efforts to address voter’s top concern, property taxes, follow the lobby money. Almost a quarter million dollars, the largest amount by any single special interest group, was spent opposing property tax reform and promoting income tax cuts by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce. Although Nebraska’s cities spent the most on lobbying as a five year total, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce comes in at a close second, edging into the top spot for single year spending during 2016 and 2017.
The money spent on lobbying does not exclusively represent money spent to buy drinks and dinners for lawmakers or contribute to their campaign funds. The impact of the money is to buy a constant presence, access, and relationships with elected officials. The continual presence of the lobby, both in the capitol and at social events attended by lawmakers, creates an echo chamber of special interests. Voters should expect their elected representatives at all levels of government to at least be transparent about when and how special interests leverage their influence.