Special interests spent $14 million to influence state government

2012-06-27T15:05:00Z 2012-08-23T19:37:04Z Special interests spent $14 million to influence state governmentBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Special interest groups spent $14 million last year trying to influence Nebraska’s state government. That included more than $600,000 spent by TransCanada as lawmakers were debating legislation regarding the company’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Although most of the money was spent on paying the lobbyists themselves, an analysis by the watchdog group Common Cause of Nebraska found nearly $347,000 was spent on entertaining state elected officials and their staffs. Another $18,000 went to gifts and $17,000 went to tickets to sporting and other events.

"Food and beverages are exempt from disclosure, so it is difficult to even estimate how much wining and dining went on," said Jack Gould, the issues chair for Common Cause. "The impact on the Legislature is difficult to measure."

Lobbyists are restricted to gifts of $50 per month per senator. But senators must report only gifts valued at more than $100. But principals -- the special interests that hire the lobbyists -- only report their total expenditures.

"We know that TransCanada spent $603,031 on lobbying in 2011, but we really don’t know exactly how the money was allocated," Gould said.

He said if a principal gave a senator a gift valued at more than $100 and a senator forgot to report it, there is no way to cross check.

"The gift would only show up in the totals of the principal’s report but there is no way to be sure," Gould said. "If two lobbyists promoting the same bill took a senator golfing and spent $100, they could split the cost and no one would have to report anything."

Gould said the University of Nebraska is the only entity that discloses more than required. For years, the school has reported which lawmakers take free tickets to sporting events -- particularly highly coveted football tickets.

In 2011, 14 of Nebraska's 49 lawmakers accepted a free pair of NU season football tickets, with a value of $792. But just eight lawmakers reported the gift.

"It should be noted that the university does not disclose senators who pay for tickets with their own money, despite the fact that they have privileged access," he said.

Gould said that just because Nebraska lawmakers earn only $12,000 a year plus expenses, people should not assume that gifts and special privileges are an accepted form of compensation.

"Lobbyists and principals provide these things with the expectation that they will win favor and gain special access," he said.

There are approximately 300 lobbyists registered with the clerk of the Legislature.

There are more than 450 entities that employ lobbyists. Those that spent more than $100,000 on lobbying in 2011 included TransCanada, the Nebraska League of Municipalities ($281,000), the Nebraska State Education Association ($146,000) Nebraska Bankers Association ($143,000), the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry ($129,000) and the University of Nebraska ($116,000).

"Although we tend to separate lobbying expenses from campaign contributions, both play a key role in winning access and influence," Gould said.

Union Pacific, for example, spent some $84,000 on lobbying, but it also contributed nearly $39,000 in checks ranging from $500 to $10,000 to 37 candidates for public office.

"Every individual and every organization should be encouraged to make their opinions heard," Gould said. "Professional lobbyists are excellent communicators and providers of information. It is gift giving, entertainment and campaign contributions that create ethical questions and public concern."

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

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