Common Cause Nebraska has presented a persuasive case for improving state laws requiring disclosure on lobbying expenses and campaign contributions.
The watchdog group noted that special interest groups spent at least $14 million last year trying to influence Nebraska’s state government.
But the figures on lobbying expenses are incomplete, often unclear and possibly misleading.
For example, state senators are supposed to report gifts of more than $100, but there’s little follow-up to make sure every senator is following the law.
One of the few ways to check up on senators is to compare the gifts self-reported by senators with information disclosed by the University of Nebraska on which senators accepted tickets to NU football games and other sporting events.
“It can be argued that who gets free football tickets is a trivial issue, but it is the only true measure of how accurately gifts are reported,” Common Cause said in its annual report.
Last year, 14 senators accepted a free pair of season football tickets worth $792, but only eight reported the gift, said Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause.
In addition, food and beverages are exempt from the reporting requirements.
If the same percentages hold true for reporting other gifts, then there’s a lot of gift-giving that happens outside the public view.
Not only do lobbyists wine and dine state senators, they also help them raise campaign contributions.
Earlier this year, Common Cause Nebraska pointed out that about 90 percent of the campaign contributions to candidates for the Public Service Commission came from the companies the commission regulates.
Another popular way for senators to raise campaign cash is breakfasts arranged by lobbyists during the legislative session. Senators can raise thousands at these breakfasts in virtually untraceable money. Donors of amounts less than $250 are not required to disclose their identities.
The Journal Star editorial board is mindful of the fact that Nebraska was one of only five states to receive a grade of B for accountability and transparency in the State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity.
But no state received a grade of A. Improvement is possible.
Current state disclosure laws have too many loopholes. In the current era of super PAC advertising, the public is becoming more aware of the importance of strong laws that allow voters to follow the money. Better laws are needed in Nebraska to make sure voters have all the information they need.