Common Cause Nebraska not abandoning cause

Common Cause Nebraska not abandoning cause

BY Joanne Young

Common Cause Nebraska isn’t giving up on what it considers to be unethical campaign funding of Nebraska Public Service Commission candidates.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization that works to hold elected leaders accountable to the public interest doesn’t like that PSC candidates accept thousands of dollars from the companies and utilities they regulate.

Common Cause supported a bill – LB61 – in this year’s legislative session that would have prohibited PSC candidates from accepting that money. First-year Sen. Bill Avery, a former Common Cause Nebraska member, introduced the bill. The Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee killed it during the session on a 7-0 vote. Avery, who is a member of the committee, was present but did not vote on the kill motion.

“I guess I wasn’t persuasive enough,” Avery said.

After the session, Common Cause requested an analysis of the proposed law from the New York School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

The reply came this month from the Brennan Center’s Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, who advised that narrowly tailored restrictions, such as those found in LB61, are likely to be upheld as constitutional.

But Avery says the question of the bill’s constitutionality wasn’t its downfall.

He believed the committee did not send the bill to the floor because “that’s a debate my colleagues don’t want to have.” The regulating of campaign contributions strikes too close to home, he said, and it makes senators skittish.

LB61 was not directed at any particular member, former member or candidate of the PSC, and he was not alleging wrongdoing, Avery said.

“What I seek to do is remove the appearance of impropriety and ensure public trust that the commission is serving the public interest and not the interests of the industries,” he said at the bill’s hearing.

But Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, chair of the Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee, saw the bill as a “witch hunt.”

“It was unfair,” he said. “It picked on one entity when everybody else can accept contributions from whoever they want.”

Accepting contributions from the companies and utilities they regulate is legal.

But Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska says what is legal isn’t always right. His argument in favor of restricting campaign contributions from telecommunications, transportation, natural gas, private water companies, and other utilities is one of ethics, he said. Taking away those contributions forces commissioners to become dependent on the public, not the utilities, he said.

The commission is supposed to be protecting the public, Gould said. Its mission is to assure Nebraskans receive high quality, safe and reliable public services at fair and affordable rates.

According to campaign summary reports from PSC members for various election cycles, commissioners did take thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind campaign contributions from the likes of Cox Communications, Great Plains Communications, Huntel, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Fiberlink LLC, Aquila and Northern Natural Gas.

Some of those companies or their lobbyists also helped to pay for fundraisers that brought in thousands of campaign dollars.

Frank Landis, PSC District 1 commission and vice chairman of the PSC, said he also gets contributions from family, friends, fellow attorneys and people he has known for years who have nothing to do with companies and utilities regulated by the PSC.

If the Legislature wants to change who can make contributions, that’s fine with him, Landis said. And if it wants to lower the limit on which contributions are reported to Accountability and Disclosure, that’s fine, too.

“The Legislature should do whatever it wants to do with it,” he said.

But where should this debate stop? he asked. Shouldn’t it include any state or local politician who accepts contributions from beer distributors, healthcare companies, bankers, or teachers groups, who are affected by bills or ordinances politicians vote on?

The Brennan Center, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice, said in its analysis of the law that LB61 could serve a “sufficiently important” state interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption by preventing businesses from appearing to “buy” regulators perceived to be sympathetic to their industry.

Nebraska is one of 12 states that elects its public utility commissioners. In other states, they are appointed.

Avery said he doesn’t know if he will bring the bill back as soon as next year.

“But it’s not going to go away because I’m not going to go away,” he said.

Date: 10/29/2007 12:00:00 AM