Lobbyists striving to influence state lawmakers earned a record $17.8 million in 2018, up from $13.8 million in just four years.
Common Cause Nebraska, in its annual lobby report, said while the growth is due in part to growth in the number of lobbyists and lobbying firms, "it has become generally accepted that if you want something done at the Capitol, you should hire a lobbyist."
In a two-year session, the Nebraska Legislature works on more than 1,000 bills. In 2017-18, 1,136 bills were introduced, 667 in the first session. This year, that first-session list of bills grew to 739.
The number of compensated lobbyists, 391, has increased each year since at least 2015. The number of people and firms hiring lobbyists has also increased to 573.
People and businesses often hire professionals, who are at the Capitol daily, to advance their agendas, the lobby report said. "And those who have the money expect to have better access and influence — and there's the rub," said Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska.
The insider game that allows for wining and dining and entertaining puts the average citizen at a disadvantage, Gould said.
One of the problems, he said in an interview, is that the public can't track who is benefiting from that entertainment money. Entertainment is a tool to get access to senators and to have influence, he said.
"They're doing a lot of entertaining, but they don't tell you who they're golfing with, they don't tell you who they're taking out to eat," he said. "If you could pin it down to the lobbyist and the senator, then the public could really see how much time is being spent with certain senators."
Lobbyists are also spending a lot on campaign fundraising, both during the session and outside of the session, Gould said. Some make direct contributions and some direct their clients to make contributions. They want access to all candidates.
"We're seeing more and more lobby-directed money, and actually lobby money going to the Legislature, and we're seeing a decrease in the percentage of small donors," he said. "When you allow the lobby to become major players in who gets elected, that isn't in the best interest of the public."
Those organizations and government groups spending the most on lobbying include the University of Nebraska, the city of Lincoln, the Nebraska Association of County Officials, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska State Education Association and Altria Client Services.
Altria owns cigarette, smokeless tobacco and wine companies, and recently invested nearly $2 billion in Cronos Group, a Canadian cannabis company with both medicinal and recreational brands. It spent the most among lobbyists within the Nebraska Legislature in 2018 at $181,818.
That year, the company contributed $38,000 to political campaigns, the bulk going to the Nebraska Republican Party ($16,000) and the Committee to Elect Pete Ricketts for Governor ($10,000). In addition, as of April, Altria gave $1,500 to the campaign committee of Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, and $1,000 each to Sens. Ben Hansen, Laura Ebke, Brett Lindstrom, Mike Hilgers, Robert Clements, Jim Scheer and Theresa Thibodeau. Matt Deaver for Legislature also received $1,000. And $500 each was given to Sens. Anna Wishart, John Lowe, John Murante, Suzanne Geist and Justin Wayne.
Altria media relations directed the Journal Star to several websites for response on its contributions.
"Altria Group and its companies advocate on a wide range of public policy issues that affect our businesses. We do this through responsible and constructive engagement with government officials, retailers, wholesalers, adult consumers and other stakeholders," the company wrote.
Participation in the political and public policy processes is vital to its business, serves the best interests of shareholders and adult consumers, and is a necessary component of good corporate citizenship, it said.
The top compensated lobbyist firms include Mueller Robak, Radcliffe & Associates, O'Hara Lindsay, Peetz & Co., American Communications Group, and Kissel, Kohout, ES Associates.
Sixteen school districts and one learning community have hired or employ lobbyists, including Lincoln, Omaha, Westside, Bellevue, Adams Central, Fremont, Grand Island, Millard, Papillion and Ralston.
"The question is, do those school districts do better with the school funding formula, which has never been fully funded with all the tax problems and concerns," Gould said. "In reality, the state has the responsibility to provide decent funding for rural schools as well as urban schools. … There is an equity question."
More than 200 other districts don't have lobbyists, he said, many of them smaller, rural and really in need and suffering from the property tax situation, in which 85 percent of school funding is coming from property taxes, mostly from farmers.
The University of Nebraska, which competes for tax dollars, employed former Sen. Heath Mello in 2018 and also hired Peetz & Co. That year, according to the report, it spent nearly $40,000 on entertaining state officials and provided $1,335 in gifts. It also distributed $14,248 worth of tickets to events, including NU football and basketball games and Omaha hockey games.
"They wine and dine a lot, too," Gould said.
The university has spent progressively less money on lobbying over the past five years, going from $160,000 in 2014 to $131,000 in 2018.
University of Nebraska spokeswoman Melissa Lee said that with the exception of Mello's salary, those lobbying expenses are paid with private funds from the NU Foundation.
"We value the opportunity to spend time with state senators and advocate for our students," Lee said. "These activities are part of building relationships with state senators and it's an opportunity to share our story, share the story of the university."
Common Cause Nebraska said it continues to advocate for a two-year distance between serving as a lawmaker and becoming a lobbyist. In 2018, 20 former state elected officials were registered lobbyists, including former Speaker Greg Adams, former Attorney General Jon Bruning, and nine who were senators within the past five years.
Gould said the organization would also like to see an end to fundraisers during sessions and greater transparency from lobbyists and who they are representing.