There is an old saw that says no one should witness how laws and sausage are made. Sometimes a legislative lobbyist has to be a sausage-maker.
A while back I received the 2018 annual report of the Nebraska Environmental Trust entitled: “25 Years of Transforming Lives Through Conservation.” It’s a 19-page description of the various projects funded by the trust, which gets its money from the Nebraska Lottery.
Through 2018, nearly $300 million had been awarded to thousands of habitat, surface and groundwater, waste management and recycling, air quality and soil management projects to “conserve, enhance, and restore the natural physical and biological environment in Nebraska.” The trust truly is one of the state’s gemstones.
Its origin is interlocked with that of the state lottery. Ben Nelson was elected governor in 1990 on a platform that included support of a lottery. Seizing on this after his election, the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, commissioned a poll that determined an overwhelming number of Nebraskans would support a mechanism to help protect the environment in the state.
They would support paying for that from the proceeds of a lottery and an increase in the tax on cigarettes. The poll results were shared with the governor and key lawmakers.
The Nebraska Legislature in 1991 approved a constitutional amendment to create a state lottery, but it had to be ratified by the voters during the 1992 general election. A law in 1991 dedicated 49.5% of the proceeds to an “education innovation fund,” 1% to a gamblers’ assistance fund, and 49.5% “to be distributed as directed by the Legislature.” This was the money up for grabs during the 1992 60-day session of the Legislature.
A bill was introduced by Sen. Chris Beutler of Lincoln to authorize the creation of the Environmental Trust to be funded by half of the undesignated proceeds from the lottery. The other half would go to close and mitigate local landfill sites for a short time period, and then the dollars would revert to the trust. Two cents of a 10-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes would go to the trust. The remaining eight cents would go to prisons, higher education and state building renovation.
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The bill went to the Revenue Committee and into the sausage grinder. When it came out, the Environmental Trust still had its designated share of the lottery money, but the tobacco lobby had convinced the committee that five cents — instead of 10 – was a fair tax increase on cigarettes.
Hard lobbying by a whole new group of special interests had resulted in the replacement of some of the original designees of the tax funds. The trust had been allocated one cent of the tax instead of two, but its initial share of lottery dollars remained at 25%.
When the bill got to the floor of the Legislature, a lobbying coalition was formed to see it through. Some new special interests had been added and some had been aced out in the quest for the shrunken pot of cigarette tax money. I was there in behalf of The Nature Conservancy to protect the trust’s lottery allocation and share of the cigarette tax dollars.
Never underestimate the power of the tobacco lobby. They played for time, as this was the “short” session of the Legislature. The bill also had a low priority for consideration. If the bill wasn’t passed by the end of the session, the process would have to start all over again in 1993 when a new Legislature would convene. Who knows what would happen?
Believing that this bill was doomed, I approached Sen. Spence Morrissey of Tecumseh with a proposal to attach only the Environmental Trust portion of the original bill to his priority legislation designed to clean up landfills — a long-time state problem. It had no funding. He could use lottery money for that for a few years until the Environmental Trust gained full control of the 50% of the lottery funds as designated in Beutler's legislation.
He agreed. His bill, with the creation of the Environmental Trust and funding by lottery money attached as an amendment, was passed on the final day of the session. Few noticed. The original bill with the cigarette tax increase went up in smoke.
The governor signed the bill into law. That fall, the constitutional amendment to create a state lottery was approved by Nebraska voters with 62% approval. In 1994, lottery proceeds as designated by the trust began flowing to grant applicants, including The Nature Conservancy.