Local View: Who is watching the hen house?

Posted on December 20, 2007

Local View: Who is watching the hen house?

BY JACK GOULD, Issues Chairman of Common Cause Nebraska

The next time you see an increase in your phone bill, don't call the phone company. You would only end up talking to a machine or someone in Arkansas with a prepared argument.

Your call should really be directed to your representative on the state Public Service Commission. These public servants are paid $75,000 a year to protect you from utility gouging. They are elected locally, but the majority of their campaign funds come from the very utilities they are entrusted to regulate.

Between Jan. 28, 2002, and Jan. 10, 2005, Commissioner Gerald Vap accepted $13,626.16 in campaign funds from the utilities. Commissioner Anne Boyle between Jan. 22, 2001, and Jan. 16, 2003, accepted $16,200. Commissioner Rod Johnson between Jan. 31, 2003, and Jan. 12, 2005, 1accepted $13,689.34. These figures reflect only contributions over $250. On Jan. 30, 2006, Commissioner Frank Landis reported no utility contributions, but at one fundraiser at Billy's he raised $19,304 and all but $1,500 came in contributions under the disclosure limit of $250. This may be a new trend in invisible fundraising.

In the last legislative session, Common Cause Nebraska supported LB61. The bill would prevent the utility companies, their executives, and their lobbyists from making campaign contributions to the Public Service Commissioners. By eliminating those contributions the Commissioners would have to rely on their constituents for campaign funds and spend more time explaining their work to the public.

The Legislature's Government Committee held a public hearing on LB61. Only one paid lobbyist for a utility testified against the bill. The bill was held in committee for several weeks and, in executive session, defeated by a vote of 7 to 1. Senators voting against the bill were Aguilar, Mines, Adams, Friend, Karpesek, Pahls and Rogert. Chairman Aguilar led the opposition, saying the bill was "unfair." He was quoted as saying: "It picked on one entity when everybody else can accept contributions from whoever they want." Not a very good argument.

It is worth considering the potential influence of the utility lobby on both the commission and the senators. In 2006, the top 10 utility campaign contributors to Public Service Commissioners hired 30 lobbyists and spent $453,133.24 trying to influence our state government.

Cox: $28,507.80, four lobbyists (Logsdon, Barrett, Peck, Bruning).

Great Plains Communications: $46,859.70, four lobbyists (Hybl, Urdahl, Jensen, Jordison).

Nebraska Telecommunications Business Users: $10,000, three lobbyists (Kissel, Prenda, Kristin)

AT&T: $30,934.93, four lobbyists (Canuteson, Ruth, Robak, Muller)

Burlington Northern: $45,000.00, two lobbyists (Munguia, Peters)

Union Pacific: $89,468.06, three lobbyists (Ryan, Bateman, Cutshall)

Aquila: $71,491.71, three lobbyists (Becker, O'Hara, Lindsay)

Nebraska Telecommunications Association: $51,288,54, two lobbyists (Bromm, Carstensen)

Northern Gas: $16,608.50, two lobbyists (Bruning, Loeffler)

Qwest: $62,974.00, three lobbyists (Larsen, Obst, Popken)

The senators and commissioners would argue that they are not affected by either campaign dollars or lobbying techniques. Some elected officials are wined, dined and entertained, but apparently it is all viewed as a wasted effort. The utilities mentioned above must have a different view.

If you are still concerned about your phone, cable or gas bill, you might want to give the senators who voted against LB61 a call. The bill could be brought back in this session, but it won't happen unless the public speaks out.

Date: 12/20/2007 12:00:00 AM

Office: Common Cause Nebraska

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