Spending on lobbying at the Nebraska Legislature topped a record $20M in 2021

‘It’s sad,’ says Common Cause official, that money is becoming more and more important

By: - April 29, 2022 4:00 am

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Spending on lobbyists working the Nebraska Legislature has increased almost seven-fold over the past two decades, with a record $20.3 million spent during the 90-day session of 2021, a state watchdog group says.

That amounts translates to about $414,000 for each of the 49 state senators in the Unicameral Legislature. Common Cause Nebraska said the 2021 total was $2 million higher than in 2020, which was a shorter, 60-day session.

The watchdog group, in a report issued Thursday entitled “The Pay to Play Express,” also pointed out that the state lacks tough regulations concerning lobbying and campaign spending.

Money rules ‘more and more’

It is not idle chatter when someone says, ‘If you want to get something done at the Capitol, hire a lobbyist,’ ” said Jack Gould, issues chair for Common Cause Nebraska. 

“More and more, money from the governor on down is having more impact on policy in Nebraska. It’s sad,” Gould added. He was  referring to Gov. Pete Ricketts, an Omaha wealthy businessman who is a major contributor to Republican political campaigns and causes in the state.

Gould, in the report, questioned whether “ordinary citizens” get the same access to elected officials as lobbyists, who wine and dine senators, provide campaign donations and help them hold fundraisers on behalf of companies, schools and causes.

The $20.3 million spent on lobbyists in 2021 compared to $3 million spent in 2000 and $12 million spent in 2010.

Nebraska an outlier

Among the findings in the 24-page report:

  • Nebraska is one of 22 states with no restrictions on fundraisers during legislative sessions, when lawmakers are considering how to vote on bills. Breakfast and luncheon fundraisers organized by lobbyists for senators took a hit during the past two years, because of COVID-19 restrictions, but they were making a comeback in 2022. Lobby spending figures for that year have not yet been released.
  •  Only five states, including Nebraska, have no limits on corporate campaign contributions. One of the bigger contributors, Altria Client Services (Phillip Morris), gave $75,000, with the largest beneficiaries being Ricketts and the Nebraska Republican Party — $15,500 and $20,000, respectively. In 2012, the Nebraska Campaign Finance Limitation Act was declared unconstitutional, negating the state’s ability to limit corporate campaign contributions. While it has since become legal to limit corporate contributions, the Nebraska Legislature has shown no interest in doing so, according to Common Cause.
  •  Nebraska is one of 13 states that do not limit campaign spending by political action committees. PACs, representing corporations, special-interest groups, labor unions and the University of Nebraska, spent about $3.8 million during the 2020 election cycle.
  • Sixteen state senators did not report or failed to file spending reports reflecting football tickets given to them by the University of Nebraska.
  • At least 16 former state senators are now registered as lobbyists, with all but one entering the field less than two years after leaving the Legislature. That is the “cooling off” period recommended by Common Cause before elected officials change roles and become hired lobbyists.

Overall, Common Cause Nebraska said while its report provided significant information, many details are not reported. Those include how much a lobbyist, or a group hiring a lobbyist, spent on a particular senator and the exact worth of gifts given to a lawmakers (only price ranges are reported, such as $100-200).

Top five lobbying firms by compensation in 2021:

 Mueller/Robak                             $1,646,000

 Radcliffe & Associates              $1,341,000

 O’Hara/Lindsay                         $903,000

 Zulkoski/Weber                         $883,000

Husch/Blackwell                         $828,000

 

Top spending principals in 2021:

 University of Nebraska                                $180,000

 League of Nebraska Municipalities           $155,000

 NE Council of School Administrators        $152,000

 NE Association of County Officials            $135,000

 Altria Client Services                                     $129,000

Source: Common Cause Nebraska

(Editor’s note: story has been updated to correct calculation of lobby spending per senator)

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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