Learning community hires two lobbyists

Learning community hires two lobbyists

LINCOLN – The metro Omaha learning community came into existence four months ago and has yet to ink a contract with a top administrator, hire staff or pick an office.

But the fledgling entity already has two lobbyists.

Former legislative Speaker Kermit Brashear and James Pieper, an attorney in Brashear’s Omaha law firm, have registered to represent the learning community with the Nebraska Legislature.

Each is to be paid $1,500 per month until the session ends in June, based on documents filed last month with the legislative clerk’s office.

Several Omaha-area state senators found the development surprising and troubling.

“Why do they have a need, especially so early on?” asked State Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha. “What’s the concern?”

Sen. Scott Price of Omaha called the hiring of a lobbyist “just an indication of another government entity that wants to install itself permanently.”

And Sens. Mike Friend of Omaha and Abbie Cornett of Bellevue questioned the learning community’s use of tax dollars for lobbying. “I guess that’s money out of our pockets,” Friend said.

The learning community’s initial budget comes from the state and from regional educational service units, which collect property taxes. Eventually, property owners in the two counties will pay a common property tax levy to support the learning community.

But Sen. Greg Adams of York, the Education Committee chairman, saw some positive signs in the development.

He said it means the learning community council members are starting to act as a group, rather than as representatives of the 11 individual Douglas and Sarpy County school districts.

“Do I wish the money was being used for something else?” Adams asked. “Yes, but lobbying is part of the process, and to some extent, we depend on that here. It does give people a voice who don’t have the time to be here.”

Rick Kolowski, chairman of the learning community council, said the lobbyists were hired to help get some tweaks made in the learning community law. Brashear helped craft the learning community law and is doing legal work for the new entity.

School districts and other local governments commonly hire lobbyists, either individually or through an association, Kolowski noted.

Brashear and Pieper join lobbyists for 16 individual public school districts and educational service units working the Capitol Rotunda.

Reports filed with the Accountability and Disclosure Commission show that the 16 taxpayer-supported education entities spent more than $132,000 on lobbying during the first three months of this year. Last year they spent a total of more than $431,000. In 2007, it topped $518,000.

Eight of the 11 districts in the learning community have hired their own lobbyists.

Jack Gould, a spokesman for Common Cause Nebraska, has had longstanding concerns about school districts hiring lobbyists.

He called the practice unfair because lobbyists work to benefit the districts that hire them, rather than to benefit Nebraska children. Districts with lobbyists tend to be the state’s larger ones, while smaller districts have no regular representation.

Gould said he also objects because school districts use tax money to hire lobbyists – in order to get more tax money.

“The whole practice of hiring these lobbyists is selfish,” he said. “Why should tax dollars be spent on that?”

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln agreed. He said he is considering introducing a bill next year that would limit the use of state school aid money for lobbyists. A current law limits the amount of legal fees that can be counted for state aid purposes.

“It always bothers me when I see money that should be going to helping kids learn go to lawyers and lobbyists,” Avery said.

Date: 5/9/2009 12:00:00 AM