Editorial, 6/29: Let’s improve transparency on lobbying expenditures

Unique – it’s a word we hear more often than we should, mainly because it’s often applied to situations that aren’t in fact one of a kind.

But, when it comes to discussing the Nebraska Legislature, it’s fitting. No other state uses a one-house legislative branch, and the Journal Star editorial board has long believed the pros – which include unmatched transparency – outweigh the cons.

However, that same openness in the legislative process disappears when it comes down to tracking how its members and their staffs are being entertained by lobbyists.

Released last week, Common Cause Nebraska’s annual report on lobbying expenditures details the information known on the $17 million in spending by the lobby’s principals last year. While the vast majority of that money understandably goes toward salaries for the record number of lobbyists (391 in 2018), the second-greatest expense is entertainment.

And that category, while separate from tickets and gifts, is nebulous, at best. Money used to entertain our 49 senators ($92,000) – who combine to make $588,000 annually for their service – and elected executive branch officials ($4,819) can be separated, but more than two-thirds of it went to “others” not identified.

As the report states, “Lobbyists are restricted to giving gifts of $50 per month, per senator. Senators must report only gifts valued over $100. Gifts of food and beverages are excluded from reporting, except as they show up in the total entertainment figures for both the lobbyist and the principal.”

Those rules have plenty of cracks that can diminish the hallmark and tradition of transparency at the Nebraska State Capitol. After all, the building’s main entrance bears an axiom calling for open government that will never cease to ring true: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”

In the interest of that clarity, let us make this point loudly: Lobbying isn’t a bad thing. In a capitol with so few state senators (49) with small staffs and so many bills introduced (739 in this year’s 90-day session), the role of lobbyists to convey the case as to why an entity or industry supports or opposes certain legislation is still important.

Our primary concern is the inability under present rules to tell precisely who’s receiving what from lobbyists and their principals.

We don’t have any evidence to highlight moneyed interests muscling out everyday Nebraskans. Improved transparency in reporting means the data would presumably make that case on its own in the public eye. The balance of power in Nebraska must always tilt in favor of the common voter.

George Norris sold Nebraskans on his “proposition to improve government” by creating the nation’s only unicameral Legislature with many factors. The access and transparency we enjoy today may have been secondary in 1934 to reducing taxes, but these ideals remain instrumental to our state’s governance 85 years later.