Nebraska lets legislators shift from lawmaking to lobbying
Nebraska state officials who want to profit off their government experience and connections after leaving office face virtually no obstacles in becoming lobbyists, unlike most other states that bar their leaders from immediately switching roles, according to a new national report.
Nebraska is among seven states with no restrictions on former lawmakers, governors or other elected officials working to influence their former colleagues, according to the analysis by Public Citizen, a consumer-rights advocacy group.
The result is clear during the legislative session, when on most days a dozen or so senators-turned-lobbyists gather outside the chamber, ready to talk with lawmakers about bills that could help or hurt their clients. Nebraska also stands in sharp contrast to neighboring Iowa, which Public Citizen praised for having one of the nation’s toughest “revolving door” laws.
“These folks were elected to serve the public. They’re not elected to serve private interests,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman of Common Cause Nebraska, a group that has fought for years to impose so-called revolving door restrictions. “For them to immediately leave office and sell their experience and connections to the highest bidder is not in the public interest.”
At least 20 former elected officials have registered as lobbyists with the Nebraska Legislature since 2000, and half of them started within the last five years, according to Common Cause Nebraska’s annual lobbying report released last month. Of those who were listed, 14 registered within a year of leaving public office, the report found.
Nebraska lawmakers have typically rejected restrictions, arguing that former lawmakers and state employees should be allowed to take their skills into private-sector jobs.
Public Citizen, which is based in Washington, D.C., maintained in its report released last week that public officials could be swayed by the possibility of a lucrative job from an industry that wants special treatment from the government. The group also argued that public officials who become lobbyists often have access to lawmakers that isn’t available to others.
“If you allow public officials to immediately leave office and work as a lobbyist, it raises the potential for corruption,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist. “You have lawmakers who are looking at their own bottom line.”
Public Citizen praised three states — Iowa, North Dakota and Maryland — for enacting polices that make it more difficult for public officials to cash in on their government service by becoming lobbyists. All three states have enacted “cooling-off” periods and prohibit any “lobbying activity” during that time.
Most other states require cooling-off periods, ranging from six months to two years, but only prohibit “lobbying contacts,” such as a phone call to try to influence a former colleague in the legislature. Those laws contain loopholes that still let former public officials join lobbying firms and organize lobbying campaigns. Florida recently passed a minimum six-year cooling-off period that will take effect Dec. 31, 2022.
Iowa’s revolving-door law was approved in response to a scandal in the 1990s involving an investment scheme known as the Iowa Trust that promised above-average interest payments to local governments that deposited their property tax revenue with the organization.
The group got into financial trouble when the market shifted, drawing scrutiny from Iowa lawmakers. It also called attention to the fact that then-Senate President Joe Welsh had been hired as a salesman for the Iowa Trust and had been heavily involved in passing the law that allowed the trust to operate in Iowa. Other ex-lawmakers began lobbying as soon as they left office, annoying some of their former statehouse colleagues.
“It just kind of looked bad,” said Mike Gronstal, a former Iowa Democratic Senate Majority Leader who now works as a lobbyist.
Gronstal said the two-year waiting period gives former legislators time to consider their options and helps avoid conflicts of interest. He said he considers the law a good policy, even though it forced him to delay his lobbying work.
“It’s not like it completely stops you from using your legislative skills,” he said. “It reassures the public without being an absolute ban.”
Other than Nebraska, the other states with no restrictions are Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature Jim Scheer said he doesn’t see a pressing need to change the current system.
Scheer said Nebraska’s term limits make it difficult for ex-senators to exploit their relationships with former colleagues in the Legislature because a new crop of lawmakers arrives after every election. Nebraska legislators can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms, but can return to office after a four-year waiting period.
“The advantage of being a legislator is very short-lived because we have so much turnover,” Scheer said. “The people you’ve dealt with in the past move out pretty quickly. Who are you going to influence?”
Scheer said he doesn’t begrudge former lawmakers and staffers who want to convert their state government experience into a lobbying or consulting job. He noted that Nebraska state senators earn $12,000 a year, placing them among the nation’s lowest-paid legislators, and many aren’t able to work full-time, regular jobs while in office.
He also argued that lobbyists who served in the Legislature provide valuable information to current lawmakers, even when they’re pushing an agenda. In an era of term limits, Scheer said lobbyists offer experience and historical knowledge that many sitting senators lack.