Money And Politics: Digging Through Nebraska’s Financial Disclosure Laws

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January 30th, 2013

Financial information about politicians can be useful to voters and political watchdog groups – but it’s not always easy to come by. If you do dig into what’s available, what does it say about the wealth of Nebraska state legislators compared to their constituents? Does that relate to conflicts of interest? And where do things stand with efforts to make information more accessible?

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The estimated median net worth of U.S. Congressmen and women is more than 14 times higher than the average American household, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. NET News wanted to know if a wealth disparity between representatives and constituents existed in Nebraska, as well – and according to an analysis of state senators’ yearly financial disclosure forms, it does.

We couldn’t do an exact comparison, because there’s no way to tell just from the disclosure forms what Nebraska state senators’ actual net worth is. Instead, we used public records data to look at the primary residential property value of state senators’ homes versus their constituents’.

On average, Nebraska state legislators’ homes are valued 1.6 times higher than the median for Nebraska as a whole. Sen. Mark Christensen of District 44 tops the list, with primary residential property worth more than four and half times the median for his panhandle district.

“It’s a problem,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I’m not sure it’s got a solution.”

Now, there are exceptions: Sen. Ernie Chambers from Omaha District 11, for example, owns a home worth three times less than the median for his district. But that makes him one of only 9 or 10.

And that 1.6 figure isn’t even counting farmland, ranchland, business property or rental property.

But why is there such a big difference?

Experts like Hibbing said a major factor is the relatively low salary for senators, which at $12,000 a year has remained unchanged for the last quarter-century.

“You know, the salary that we pay our legislators is kind of criminal,” he said. “And I think it does make it very difficult for someone of ordinary means to serve in the Legislature.”

That $12,000 salary was reaffirmed this past November when Nebraskans resoundingly rejected a referendum that would have almost doubled senators’ pay. Along with term limits, the low senatorial wages are intended to keep career politicians out of the unicameral, instead encouraging a so-called citizen’s legislature of ordinary people with ordinary jobs.

But as the data show, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

But so what? Does it really matter if your government representative has more money than you?

Perhaps, perhaps not. What does matter is how senators’ finances could impact their decisions as lawmakers, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“If someone comes into an elected office with an agenda and has a personal stake in a piece of legislation, then that’s the kind of thing the public should know,” he said.

Nebraska regulations state when a potential conflict of interest arises, senators must file a report with the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Last year, 13 reports were filed; so far in 2013, there have been five.

But there’s nothing to prevent senators from still discussing and voting on those bills from which they stand to gain financially. Bender said this actually makes Nebraska pretty average compared to other states.

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln District 28 chairs the government, military and veterans affairs committee, and has been active in trying to pass stricter financial disclosure and ethics laws.

“I’ve never seen anything around here that I thought was a crime,” he said slowly, adding, “I’ve seen things that I thought were pretty close to being flagrant conflicts of interest.”

Jack Gould of political advocacy group Common Cause Nebraska listed several real-life examples of conflict of interest in the Legislature that, while technically legal, weren’t necessarily ethical, he said –such as senators sponsoring bills, leaving the Legislature and then being paid by corporations to lobby for those same bills

Then there’s campaign finance reporting.

“People want to know – where is the money coming from? How are they spending it?” he said during the lunch hour rush in the cafeteria at the state capitol building. “Some of the campaign money is spent on some pretty bizarre things. I mean, we’ve found people spending campaign money on buying the prize pig at the county fair. We’ve seen them spending money on entertaining the high school basketball team.”

Right now, it’s not easy to get that data; personal financial disclosure forms, for example, aren’t available digitally. Based on current publishing schedules, candidates’ contributions and expenditures during the intense summer campaign months aren’t available to view until it’s practically time for the election.

Avery is looking to change that; he introduced legislation that would allocate $900,000 from an unused cash fund to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission to digitize their records and reporting processes. This would result in real-time, universal access. Another bill would prevent state senators from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists while the Legislature’s in session. But Avery said any ethics legislation faces an uphill battle.

He pointed to a bill he tried to bring in 2008, with Gov. Dave Heineman’s backing, that would have prevented senators from becoming lobbyists until two years after they left office.

“When the bill came before the committee, nobody showed up to oppose it. The opposition all came from the committee,” he said. “It was the nastiest, hardest hearing – and harshest hearing – I have ever participated in. Because almost every member of that committee … acted like I had a personal accusation against them.”

Bender, with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said it’s notoriously difficult to pass ethics laws, explaining many elected officials view such legislation not as a preventative measure, but as a witch hunt.

Avery said even if senators aren’t breaching ethical codes or letting potential conflicts of interest affect their decisions, more transparency in government can only be a good thing.

“The voters have to believe that what we are doing is right and proper,” he said. “If they do, then … they may not agree with everything we do, but they will certainly support the process by which we do it.”

For more information about what a Nebraska senator is worth click here.

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