Monday, April 30, 2007

Nebraska's "Common Cause" in Lobbyist Reform

by Kyle Michaelis
The following Letter to the Editor appeared in Sunday's Lincoln Journal-Star and raises an excellent point about our state's failure to regulate Unicameral campaign contributions by registered lobbyists:
The Legislature is in session and 350 lobbyists are eager to win favor. What a perfect time to hold a fundraiser breakfast at Billy's or the Nebraska Club....

A restaurant like Billy's is closed to the public for breakfast. The public and the press are not permitted to witness the transactions. Lobbyists and senators send out private invitations usually asking lobbyists for a $100 contribution at the door while fellow senators get complimentary passes. Individual contributions must be kept under $250 so the contributor's names will not have to be reported. A Public Service commissioner appears to hold the record by raising more than $19,000 at a Billy's fundraiser. Only the total amount raised has to be reported.

The invitations clearly point out: "If unable to attend, please mail your contribution to: (Senator’s name)." Some senators actually take attendance and follow up with a letter and a return envelope to non-attending lobbyists. The implication is, if you don't come across you are not likely to influence me. Is extortion too strong a word?....

It is clear that incumbents have a great advantage over any challenger by employing the in-session fundraiser. The lobbyists are handy, the legislative leverage is in place, and the geographic location is perfect. Even better, you don't have to make a campaign speech or any promises to the press or the public.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 16 states prohibit any campaign contributions during their legislative sessions. Twelve more states prohibit registered lobbyists from making contributions during legislative sessions. Nebraska, obviously, isn't one of those states.

Jack Gould, Valparaiso
Common Cause Nebraska
Gould's characterization of these fundraising efforts as "extortion" seems a needless exaggeration and a somewhat unfair accusation. But, the issue he raises about these private breakfasts and luncheons leaving our state legislature susceptible to corruption and influence-peddling is a perfectly legitimate one.

Restriction - perhaps even prohibition - of campaign contributions during the legislative session and by registered lobbyists are both worthy ideas deserving of enactment here in Nebraska. Not that such reforms would cure the ultimate problem, but the worst possibilities for impropriety would at least be mitigated.

Still, there's no removing money from politics. With these changes, senators, contributors and lobbyists would just have to be more creative and better prepared (i.e. getting their 'ducks in a row' before the session begins). There will still be the scratching of each other's backs, the leaning on one another for this or that, the same winking assurances that there has been no quid pro quo. But - damn it - they'd at least have to work harder as they play their games at the public's expense.

That's a start. If nothing else, it's a better system with greater protections than what we have now.



Post a Comment

<< Home