Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery wants to ban members of the state Public Service Commission from accepting gifts and campaign donations from telephone companies and other utilities the commission is charged with regulating.
"I think it's a potential serious conflict when the Public Service Commission members get the vast majority of their campaign contributions from the very industries they regulate," Avery said Tuesday after introducing a measure (LB1025) that would end the practice.
In addition to telephone companies, the PSC regulates grain warehouses and dealers; passenger carriers, modular homes, truck lines, bus and taxi service; natural gas utilities; and private water companies, among other things. Its five commissioners are elected to six-year terms.
Avery's bill is supported by the citizen watchdog group Common Cause of Nebraska.
"A conservative estimate would indicate that 90 percent of their campaign funds either directly or indirectly originate with those companies regulated by the commission,'' said Common Cause spokesman Jack Gould.
He said commissioners Jerry Vap and Rod Johnson, for example, have collected more than $21,000 and $15,000 respectively in campaign donations from entities regulated by the PSC and from individuals connected to such entities.
"If Nebraska wants a completely independent PSC that serves the public without any appearance of impropriety, the reliance on regulated corporations should be eliminated," Gould said. "Requiring commissioners to raise campaign funds from the general public makes the entire commission more sensitive to public concerns and raises the level of public confidence."
Vap said he would not object to such legislation as long as it was applied to all politicians.
"If that's what they want to do, I'd like to see them make it a level playing field," he said. "If a state senator is on the Education Committee, maybe they should be forbidden from taking donations from the Education Association.
"Treat everybody the same," he said.
Avery said the bill also is needed because the PSC recently was given the authority to regulate construction of oil pipelines in Nebraska.
"It's going to be even a bigger problem, because oil companies have deep pockets, and they'll spend whatever they have to spend to a get favorable regulation," Avery said.
Other bills introduced Tuesday included:
* A proposed constitutional amendment (LR375CA) by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus would ask voters to approve allowing casino gambling in Nebraska. The measure would prohibit building a casino within 60 miles of the border of any neighboring state that has casino gambling (Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Colorado and Missouri) if that state agrees to share some of its gambling revenue with Nebraska.
* A measure (LB1003) by Schumacher would double the required minimum coverage for car insurance. The minimum coverage for injury or accidental death of a person, for example, would increase from $25,000 to $50,000.
* A measure (LB1023) by Avery would waive educational fees at all University of Nebraska campuses and state colleges and community colleges for the dependents of veterans who were disabled or killed while in the military.