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As a bill makes its way through the legislative process, testimony at public hearings and debate on the floor establish the intent of the bill and its impact on Nebraskans. Once a bill becomes law, they are typically only revisited when unintended consequences emerge or problems arise. Legislators often fail to look back and determine if the predicted outcomes were achieved.
A performance audit is a systematic, objective analysis of a government program to determine if it is meeting the policy objectives it was intended to accomplish. In the Nebraska Legislature, the Legislative Performance Audit Office conducts independent analysis of statutes, programs, and agencies to measure outcomes against specific performance metrics. For the past two years I have served as the chair of the Performance Audit Committee, which works with the professional audit staff to prioritize audit topics, establish the scope of the examinations, and release the findings to the public.
In recent years performance audits have been conducted on ACCESS Nebraska, behavioral health services, specific economic development programs, and the universal service fund just to name a few. Each of the reports is available to the public on the Legislative Audit Office page of the legislature’s website. The data they contain provides important insight for how to improve policy and make government programs operate in alignment with their legislative intent.
In 2015, the Nebraska Legislature passed a statutory requirement that all state tax incentive programs undergo a performance audit every three years. The first audit of the Nebraska Advantage Act, the largest of the state tax incentives programs, was completed in 2016. Last year performance audits were conducted on the Research and Development Act and the Rural Development Act. The remainder of the incentive programs, much smaller in size, are currently scheduled for audits.
The initial audits of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs demonstrated the importance of clearly defined objectives, measurable expectations, and specific metrics during the legislative process. In the absence of these specifics, answering the question “is this program operating as intended” becomes a challenge. As chair of the Performance Audit Committee, I have been active this session helping address the need for better data about program performance.
At the beginning of the session I introduced a proposal to the Legislative Rules that would require any bill creating or changing a tax incentive program to include a logic chain with its statement of intent. This would detail the specific goals, metrics, and outcomes of the legislation on the bill at introduction. Although the rule was not adopted by the Rules Committee in its initial meeting, several senators have agreed to voluntarily develop this statement and include it with their bills. This will demonstrate how the process works and, hopefully, encourage adoption of the statements in the next legislative session.
The Performance Audit Committee has also introduced two bills that will improve the ability to conduct the statutorily required audits of the tax incentive programs. LB 935 improves data sharing between the three executive branch departments involved in the tax incentive programs–Revenue, Labor, and Economic Development–as well as gathers information necessary to analyze the jobs created by the incentives. LB 936 provides specific definitions to terms used to evaluate the incentive programs. Both have been designated Performance Audit Committee Priority Bills and were advanced from the Executive Board. LB 936 has been advanced through the first round of floor debate.
Looking back at prior legislation and measuring its impact is important to effective government. Objective analysis of both successes and shortcomings of a program help not only improve those programs, but also facilitate better bills in the future.
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.
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.
Addiction to prescription opioid painkillers has reached the level of a public health crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 11.5 million people misuse prescription opioids, with 2.1 million Americans misusing them for the first time each year. A recent survey of farmers and farm workers revealed the magnitude of the problem in the agriculture community, as 74% surveyed reported having been directly impacted by opioid abuse. Annually, the opioid epidemic costs the national economy $504 Billion. Nebraska has seen a 25% increase in the rate of death due to opioid overdose since 2005.
Prescription painkiller addiction begins with a health care provider prescribing opioid painkillers to a patient. Although highly effective at managing pain, these medications have a high addictive potential if not used judiciously and patients are not carefully monitored. An International Narcotics Control Board report found that the United States consumed 83% of the global use of oxycodone despite being less than 5% of the global population. Each year 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed every day.
Diversion of prescription painkillers is the use of medication by someone other than for whom they were prescribed. This may be the use of unused opioids by a family member, the theft of medications, the sale of pills, or, in some cases, the diversion of a prescription to an addict who has the prescription filled and takes receipt of the medication.
The aforementioned survey of farmers and farm workers, more than 3 of 4 respondents said it would easy to access a large amount of prescription opioids in their community without directly obtaining a prescription from a doctor. In order to address the diversion component of the opioid epidemic, I have introduced LB 934. In order to reduce the potential for dispensing controlled substances to individuals who may abuse them, LB 934 requires an individual who takes receipt of Schedule II-IV opiates to show a photo identification.
Twenty-five states have identification laws for the receipt of prescription drugs. While Oregon’s law is discretionary, the other twenty four states have at least one law that mandates the pharmacist request identification. Identification requirements have been utilized before as a tool to combat drug addiction. Current federal and Nebraska state law require identification for the purchase of over the counter products containing ephedrine, including Sudafed. You cannot receive a shipment of wine purchased legally to your home without providing ID when delivered. It only makes sense that positive identification should be required before being handed a bottle of highly addictive controlled substances.
Throughout my time in the Nebraska Legislature I have collaborated with my colleagues to provide options for our state to address the problem of prescription opioid abuse. Nebraska’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is now a national model. During this legislative session, my fellow senators and collaborators have introduced additional bills to tackle the crisis. Senator Sara Howard has introduced a prescription limit for opiates prescribed to children. Senator Brett Lindstrom’s bill requires patient education about opioid addiction when being prescribed painkillers. Senator Merv Riepe has proposed continuing education requirements for practitioners who prescribe opiates.
Collectively, the bills represent a package of legislation that builds upon a multi-year legislative effort to proactively get in front of the prescription painkiller problem. Fortunately, Nebraska has not experienced the same magnitude of crisis as other states. Through cooperation and common sense, we can confront this public health issue head on.
Your property tax bill is the product of two independent factors: the assessed valuation of your property and the levy rate set by the local government that spends the money. Neither of these values remains constant from year to year. Fluctuations in assessments, levy rates, and total taxes due create unpredictability in the tax bill for property owners.
For example, if a local government’s budget grows by 3% that does not mean your individual tax bill will increase that rate. Instead, valuation changes impacted by property sales far from your property and unrelated to your local market may increase your valuation dramatically. You may see the levy rate decrease, yet your total amount paid increase due to valuation increases of property across your taxing district. Changes in the valuation mix of different classes of property and a shift in the distribution of property value may result in your farm home taxes actually going down, while the taxes paid on your Ag land increases.
With both components of the property tax equation in flux from year to year, it is no wonder taxpayers are frustrated. During my four years in the Legislature, various proposals have been introduced that attempt to address the consequences of the current property tax system in Nebraska. Few have passed and none have fundamentally corrected the structural problem that exists. This session I have introduced a constitutional amendment, LR290CA, which would bring simplicity, transparency, neutrality, and stability to the property tax system in Nebraska.
If adopted by Nebraska voters, all property in Nebraska would be valued for property tax purposes at its market value on the date the owner of the property assumed title, determined by the actual purchase price. That valuation would not change until the property is sold to a new owner.
Fair market value of any property is only truly known when there is a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom know the uses and capability of the property, and money changes hands. Until that transaction occurs again, any valuation is an estimate at best. A home buyer in another community who is willing to pay more for a particular house based on their individual family wealth should not impact your tax bill. Investors who pay high prices for land on the other end of the county should not result in an increase in taxes for a young farmer trying to make a living on their family farm. New commercial developments subsidized by TIF projects should not raise the costs for an established business operating for decades in the town square.
If adopted, many of the frustrations of property tax payers would be eliminated. Gone are fluctuating valuations, equalization protests, and tax bills that make budgeting for families impossible. The complex and often confusing appraisal process is replaced with a simple and fully transparent valuation: the price on your bill of sale. Until you sell it and realize any increase in value, it does not change. Total property values in a district would have a more predictable rate of growth from year to year, providing greater stability to local governments and taxpayers alike. The system is neutral for all classes of taxpayers, since individual buying decisions, and those alone, determine your valuation for property tax purposes. The personal choices of other buyers will not cost other taxpayers on their own property.
This is a bold, structural change to how the market value of property is determined. Statutory changes to levy limits, both high and low, will need to be changed. Nevertheless, in the face of inaction by the Legislature to make incremental statutory changes to the current system, I feel compelled to place a bold, structural change before the public to consider. Many proposals fail to meet the standards of simplicity, transparency, stability, and neutrality. This structural change to determining market value of property embodies them all.
For many taxpayers, understanding how their total property tax bill is determined can be confusing. When property owners receive notice that the assessed value of their property has been increased by the county assessor, sometimes substantially, they are understandably concerned. In most cases, the valuation increase means a tax increase.
Your property tax bill is determined by two factors: the assessed valuation of your property and the total tax levy rate set by the local political subdivisions in which you live. Neither of these numbers remain constant over time. Local political subdivisions establish a budget based on their spending plan. They then look at the total assessed value of property within their taxing district. The levy rate is set, within the bounds of levy limits, to generate the amount of revenue to pay for the predetermined budget.
Your property tax bill may go up, but the levy rate may stay the same or even decrease. If this occurs, the assessed valuation on your property has been increased. For many property owners, increases in the assessed valuation of their property has driven a significant rise in their property tax bill. For agriculture land owners, rapid valuation increases have created a dramatic and unprecedented shift in the total property tax distribution. That shift has most notably impacted the school equalization aid formula, TEEOSA, resulting in the majority of rural school districts in Nebraska receiving no state equalization aid.
The Nebraska Constitution requires property to be valued uniformly and proportionately. The value is determined based on an assessment of the market price of the property, or an estimation of what the property would be sold for if offered for sale in the open market between a willing buyer and a willing seller. Equalization is the process by which the assessed value of your property is adjusted to reflect the market value of similar properties for the purposes of determining your property tax.
When property owners feel the value placed upon their property for the purpose of taxation is in excess of market value, they can file an official protest with the county clerk using Form 422A. They then must appear before the County Board of Equalization or their assigned agent to demonstrate why their valuation is not accurate.
Protesting your property valuation is a time consuming process. For many taxpayers, it means time away from work and family obligations to prepare for and attend the hearing. The standards for the information a taxpayer needs to provide to support their claim are unclear and vary from county to county. Taxpayers are often only given a few minutes to make a case that can have a significant impact on their family budget. For many the protest process is intimidating. Even after the protest hearing is complete, there is no consistent standard by which the Board of Equalization has to accept or reject the valuation.
When the county increases the valuation of your property for the purposes of taxation, it represents an increase in taxes. The burden for justifying the increase should lie solely with the government entity. It should not be the responsibility of the taxpayer to prove the value of their property.
Buffalo County provides an excellent example of the burden placed on property owners by the current system. Last year 1,972 valuation protests were filed with the County Clerk. That is an amazing investment of time and productivity by taxpayers to defend the valuation of their property, and it is down from an all-time record high of 2,566 in 2016. The result of those protests was a total decrease of $66.92 million in assessed property value, out of the original $283.69 million proposed. That amounts to 23.5% of the total valuation increase that was reversed following taxpayer protests.
Taxpayers should never be left wondering “why” their valuation increased, nor should they bear the burden of disproving a positive claim made by the government. In response to this need, I have introduced LB 905, which would require that at any hearing of the county board of equalization on a protest regarding real property, the burden of proof is on the county assessor to show that his or her assessed value is equitable and in accordance with the law.
I encourage county officials to proactively communicate with taxpayers, in detail, about why their property values increased. Every valuation increase should be made with understanding it is the responsibility of the county, not the taxpayer, to defend the increase. Clear, consistent, and objective standards of evidence should be available to taxpayers who wish to protest their valuation. The burden of proof for any government action, including taxation, lies with the government, not the citizen.
The trust and confidence of the public in the integrity of their government is critical. Pew Research Center data shows historical lows in public trust of the federal government, with only 18% of respondents indicating they believe Washington will do what is right “almost always” or “most of the time”. Public confidence in local government is much higher. Gallup research shows much stronger trust in state government, at 62%. Local governments have the highest level of public trust, with 71% of respondents in the Gallup survey having a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in local government to solve problems.
Public confidence in government is maintained when public officials develop policy in an open and transparent manner. When citizens do not feel heard, or, even worse, perceive they are intentionally excluded from important discussions by public officials, their trust in government is compromised.
In 1975 the Nebraska Open Meetings Act established the guidelines under which public policy in local government would be conducted. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret. Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the public in order that citizens may exercise their democratic privilege of attending and speaking at meetings of public bodies”. If you have ever attended a public board meeting, you have likely heard the chair open the meeting with reference to the law and where to find it posted in the meeting room.
The Nebraska Open Meetings Act recognizes the importance of citizen access and public input to the decisions of public officials. Citizen participation in public meetings is a two-way process. Officials have the opportunity to hear from their constituents before making decisions that impact the public. Additionally, open meetings provide an opportunity for the public to gain information, data, and background that inform board member decisions. Public officials have an obligation to listen to the public. Citizens also have an obligation to educate themselves about important policy issues.
Open communication between government and the public is achieved through many means. Rules about public notice, agendas, and minutes are not procedural boxes to be checked. They are essential elements to insure the public is aware of what government is doing and have ample time to engage in the process if they so choose. Work and family commitments often limit how a voter may be able to physically participate in a public meeting. In such cases, detailed agendas published with adequate notice and comprehensive minutes of official actions are critical.
Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act is to be interpreted in favor of openness to the public. Making difficult and potentially unpopular decisions are not easy as an elected official. However, the more controversial a policy, the greater the need for an open dialogue between public officials and citizens. Public trust is not doing only what is popular or not upsetting people. Open communication and meetings allow even those who disagree to have a voice in the process and make decisions from a common set of facts.
Citizen apathy undermines the effectiveness of representative government. All too often I hear from local elected officials who tell me nobody attends their meetings or asks questions about their decisions. Our civic duty does not end at casting our ballot. It extends to a responsibility to remain engaged in the public process, even when it becomes routine and mundane.
On the other hand, when a controversial issue emerges–like wind farm developments, nursing home closures, or bond issues–hearing rooms are suddenly packed with vocal constituents. While public disagreements can challenge a community, citizens engaging in the policy process is a good thing. When the public cares enough to engage, they are taking ownership of their community. Better public policy will result.
As 2017 draws to a close a new legislative session looms on the horizon. The second session of the 105th Nebraska Legislature will convene on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. This marks the second year of the biennium. A “short session” lasting 60 legislative days, the Legislature is currently scheduled to conclude its work and adjourn in early April.
The first ten legislative days are the only opportunity for senators to introduce new legislation. During that time, new bills will be submitted and referenced to their committee of jurisdiction to schedule public hearings. It is expected that several hundred new pieces of legislation will be introduced.
Because it is the second year of the biennium, legislation that was introduced last year but not indefinitely postponed by Committee or during floor debate remains active. Floor debate this session will begin by debating bills that remain on General and Select File from the previous year. The website of the Nebraska Legislature contains a link to the end of session worksheet which details the status of every bill introduced the last session.
As new bills are introduced, they will be added to the worksheet and their status updated daily as they progress through the system. As bills make their way through the committee and floor debate process, I encourage voters to use the Nebraska Legislature’s website to identify bills of interest, track their progress, and access voting records. A wealth of resources are available at nebraskalegislature.gov for voters to access, including the daily activities of the Legislature.
A biennial budget was created and adopted in the last session to cover the July 1, 2017 through June 30th, 2019 budget cycle. However, actual tax receipts were below the forecast projections during the first three months of the new fiscal year. On October 27, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board revised the revenue forecast. A downgrade of the revenue forecast in the amount of $100 million in the current fiscal year will require modification of the budget adopted last session.
Known as a “deficit budget bill”, this process will make budget adjustments to match the lower revenue forecast and address any additional requests for new spending. The state is constitutionally required to balance its budget. It is also worth noting that receipts for the first month following the revised revenue forecast, November, fell $4 Million short. The budget situation will have a significant impact on the nature of the legislation introduced this session. Any bill that requires an appropriation will need to have a funding source.
Voters should not lose sight of the $235 Million in one-time cash transfers funding state spending in the current fiscal year, and the additional $131 Million of one time money in the second year. The statutory minimum reserve was also temporarily lowered, which has a $35 Million impact. That $400 Million hole, just under 10% of the General Fund budget, will need to be filled with new revenue in the budget to be crafted in 2019.
As in prior years, it is expected that bills will require a priority designation in order to receive floor debate, even if they have been advanced from committee. There will be four afternoons of floor debate before public hearings begin on January 16 and fill the afternoon schedule.
If you are in Lincoln while the Legislature is in session to testify at a bill hearing or observe the process in action, don’t hesitate to contact my office. Public engagement is the foundation of Nebraska’s unicameral process.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
Money has a significant influence on politics and public policy. The public has a legitimate right to be concerned about money that flows to legislators and elected officials. Campaigns are expensive. Costs for legislative and regents races can easily exceed six figures. Donations from individuals, political action committees, and businesses to the campaigns of candidates and elected officials are filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission and are publicly available. Regular media coverage of these reports make sure voters are aware of how campaigns are funded.
Voters are likely unaware of a much more substantial and influential source of money whose donors the media do not cover: the nonprofit group. In Nebraska the influence of nonprofit foundations and the groups they fund is particularly pervasive. Millions of dollars are spent annually by a handful of private foundations to influence legislation, run campaigns for political issues, and even employ elected officials. Look closely at any major policy issue in Nebraska and you will find a handful of interconnected nonprofit groups engaged in it.
If government is to be transparent and accountable to citizens, voters need to have a clear view of the money spent by 501(c)3 groups to influence policy. Nonprofit groups that identify themselves as “think tanks” or “advocacy groups” are actively engaged in the legislative process. In addition to public testimony at legislative hearings, paid staff of these agencies lobby senators, write legislation, and orchestrate extensive media and public affairs campaigns. Untangling the web of money that funds these endeavors is no easy task.
A nonprofit foundation is often used as a tool to shelter wealth from taxation and public scrutiny, while directing a substantial fortune for specific purposes, often political. Nonprofit groups, unlike political campaigns, are not required to publicly disclose their donors. As private organizations, their boards are not subject to transparency requirements. IRS Form 990 provides some detail about how a foundation may spend its money, but public access information is several years old.
In Nebraska, no single foundation has greater influence on public policy than the Sherwood Foundation, the private foundation funded by the wealth of mega-billionaire Warren Buffett’s daughter, Susie Buffett. The Sherwood Foundation supplies millions of dollars annually to a number of political nonprofit groups. OpenSky Policy Institute, a “think tank”, received over half its operating expenses in 2015 from the Sherwood Foundation. Groups that receive substantial funding from the Sherwood Foundation also employ state senators. Nebraska Appleseed, a politically advocacy group, employed Senator Kate Bolz and received over $700,000, while Nebraskans for Civic Reform, the group run by Senator Adam Morfeld, received $164,000 from Ms. Buffett’s foundation. One World Community Health Center, whose foundation employs Senator Sara Howard, received over $900,000. Center for Rural Affairs, Voices for Children, and other advocacy groups receive six figure support for their operations.
It is not uncommon for foundations to donate to other nonprofits, which may in turn fund additional nonprofits, effectively laundering donor money and removing it several steps from public view. Have you ever wondered who funds Nebraska Loves Public Schools? Founded in 2011 by the Sherwood Foundation, several Sherwood-funded groups also provide financial and logistical support to the organization. Thus, voters may have to look back through several layers of financing to identify the true source of funds.
It is in the public interest to be able to evaluate how a $1,000 campaign contribution may influence an elected official. It is of even greater importance for the public to evaluate how six-figure donations to an elected official’s employer and policy groups impact votes and policy choices. When Dorothy pulled back the curtain in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, the Great Oz exclaimed “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. Nebraska voters and the media would be well served by pulling back the veil that shrouds millions of private dollars flowing into the Nebraska political process to identify who might be pulling the levers.
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.