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Voters may already have noticed some changes in the weeks following Election Day. Your pile of mail is smaller, not filled with catchy mailers advocating for one candidate or another. With no need for polls or robocalls, your phone rings less in the evening hours. Radio stations are no longer filled wall to wall with political ads–the ones you get sick of hearing again and again. The election is over, and you get to return to the day to day of your life without all the exhausting political messages.
As voters turn their attention away from politics and politicians, special interest groups and political power brokers are ramping up their efforts. Newly elected senators have had their first dinner with the State Chamber. Lobbyists are busy scheduling lunch, drinks, and dinners with senators to push their agendas, counting votes and promoting senators for specific roles and committees. Coalitions are forming and votes are traded for seats on Executive Board, Committee on Committees, and for committee chairmanships.
Before the first televised minute of the opening day, much of the legislative agenda for the next two years will already be determined in a process shielded far away from public view. Unlike campaign contributions, which must be reported, food and drink for immediate consumption are exempt from disclosure rules in Nebraska. Lobby reports must be filed when lobbyists are active on a specific bill, but there is no public record of the topics lobbied over wine and steaks at the Nebraska Club in the weeks leading up to the start of the legislative session.
During a campaign, voters are front and center. Every candidate promises to fight for you, your family, and your wallet. As a voter, the currency of your political power is the vote you cast on November 6. You have spent that political capital. However, your job is not done. When you want to forget about politics and get back to the routine of your life and family is when you need to pay the most attention and be the most engaged. The voices of the 696,000 Nebraskans spoke on Election Day. If voters go silent, the voice whispering in your senator’s ear will not be that of the taxpayers that elected them.
You will compete with the expense accounts of corporations pushing for tax credits, incentives, and special carve outs to make their businesses more profitable at your expense. Nonprofits funded by billionaires push their agendas with an army of paid staff and a blizzard of “reports”. New senators are quickly indoctrinated about the “institution” of the Legislature and encouraged to fully immerse themselves and their families in the social network of capitol politics. Senators are encouraged to exercise their “independence”, which is really political code for voting in opposition to their district or campaign positions.
As a voter and taxpayer, don’t let your political influence end at the ballot box. Make sure your senator knows clearly and explicitly how you feel about issues before the Legislature. Call and email their office. Attend town halls and respond to call in shows. Do not assume campaign promises tell you how your senator will vote. If the only voices a senator hears are those echoing through the capitol rotunda, they will vote accordingly.
The highest profile issue during my first year in the Legislature was the death penalty repeal. Interest groups were giving me bad “polling data”, telling me my constituents supported repeal. Lobbyists, acting on their own, told me how to find “political cover” in a group. I came home to Heartwell every recess day and weekend, where my constituents made clear their opposition to repeal. The results of the statewide referendum showed definitively how many senators ignored their districts in favor of the story in the political echo chamber of Lincoln.
Get involved. Stay informed. Ask questions and demand specific answers. Government works best when it is transparent and accountable to the people who empower it. The election may be over, but the work of the citizenry to hold their elected representatives accountable has just begun.