Lobbyist Paychecks Questioned: Influence Dollars Have Lincoln’s Attention

Lobbyist Paychecks Questioned: Influence Dollars Have Lincoln’s Attention

There are concerns in Nebraska’s capital city about the amount of money spent on the lobbying of lawmakers.

It has more than quadrupled in the past decade, statistics show, and that is raising questions of whether a privileged few are buying influence. There are 339 registered lobbyists in Nebraska. Each January, they gather inside the Capitol to sway 49 senators.

“I don’t know that the senators even realize how much money is being spent on them,” said unpaid lobbyist Jack Gould, of Common Cause, a citizen watchdog group.

Gould said he checked the lobbying figures recently. According the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, state lobbyists made more than $13 million in 2007. Gould said that’s about $10 million more than they made a decade ago.

“To a point where it’s almost obscene,” Gould said.

Gould said that it is a privileged few, often large corporations, which buy access to legislators.

“Take them out to dinner, maybe go golfing with them,” Gould said.

First National Bank spent nearly $59,000 lobbying in 2007. Union Pacific spent $92,000. Aflac Insurance Co. spent $115,000 lobbying Nebraska lawmakers. Gould said the idea is to create with lawmakers a feeling of indebtedness.

Lobbyist Walt Radcliffe is one of Nebraska’s highest-paid lobbyists, making more than $1 million in 2007.

“I think more than two-thirds of Nebraskans are represented one way or another before the Legislature,” Radcliffe said, adding that he disagrees with Gould’s basic position on lobbying.

Radcliffe is topped in income by Bruce Cutshall, who earned $1.148 million in 2007, and the Ruth Mueller Robak firm, which earned the most in 2007 at $1.232 million.

“I can tell you, there does seem to be increased activity,” lobbyist Bill Mueller said.

Mueller said he was surprised by the $13 million 2007 total spent on lobbying in Nebraska.

“I don’t know what that’s related to, other than these are complicated issues. If there were easy solutions, we would have discovered them by now,” Mueller said.

Mueller said he spends most of his time educating senators on complicated issues, but not just for large corporations. He said he often represents ordinary citizens.

“The teachers of Nebraska have a lobbyist. The AARP has a lobbyist, and is very active. The Sierra Club is represented,” Mueller said.

Radcliffe said one group is not represented.

“Quite honestly, the people who aren’t represented that much are truly the disadvantaged that find themselves in state institutions or recipients of state benefits. They have a much weaker voice, there’s no question about that,” he said.

Prior to being forced out by term limits this session, state Sen. Ernie Chambers had championed the cause for the underprivileged.

“With term limits, he’s not going to be around,” said Sen. Don Preister. “I’m not going to be around. Sen. Schimek, and others who’ve tended to side with the working people and take another position, are no longer going to be there.”

Gould said that term limits mean the only experienced voices left in the Legislature will be the lobbyists.

“They’re delightful people,” Gould said. “The problem is, they’re being paid to convince somebody of one side of the argument, and there needs to be the other side of the argument equally well represented.”

Gould’s group is currently questioning a lawmaker’s work for an organization fighting a proposed ban on affirmative action. Nebraskans United has paid state Sen. Danielle Nantkes of Lincoln $7,500 for consulting and about $300 in expenses.

Gould said Nantkes shouldn’t be paid to work on the issue because she might later be asked to vote on it.

Nantkes said she’s done nothing wrong. She said she opposed the proposed ban on race-based affirmative action in public hiring before Nebraskans United hired her.

A similar measure came up in the Legislature this year but was withdrawn.

The Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative is gathering signatures to try to get the issue on the November ballot.

Date: 6/10/2008 12:00:00 AM