We don’t pay our state senators enough. The battle to get them their current $12,000 per year was a long one, and subsequent attempts to increase that have failed. It takes a voter-approved constitutional amendment to change that. Just so you know, the average pay nationally for state senators is $35,000. Nebraska’s median household income is $56,927.
We don’t let our state senators serve long enough. Nebraska is one of 15 states that impose term limits. Voters approved that in 2000 with an effective date of 2006, restricting lawmakers to two consecutive four-year terms. Critics say it takes new senators too long to get the hang of things and impacts their time for crafting good policy. Proponents say it prevents a “gold old boy” system. Two attempts to change the length of terms have failed.
Now, a national organization recommends that Nebraska take steps to prohibit senators or other state officials from becoming lobbyists after leaving office. Nebraska is among seven states with no restrictions on former lawmakers, governors or other elected officials working to influence their former colleagues, according to the analysis by Public Citizen, a consumer-rights advocacy group.
The report notes that on most days a dozen or so senators-turned-lobbyists gather outside the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber to talk with lawmakers about bills that could help or hurt their clients. Nebraska also stands in sharp contrast to neighboring Iowa, which Public Citizen praised for having one of the nation's toughest "revolving door" laws.
Public Citizen’s report was music to the ears of Common Cause Nebraska issues chairman Jack Gould. He contends these folks were elected to serve the public, not private interests. His group has fought for years to impose so-called revolving door restrictions.
Gould said allowing them to immediately leave office and sell their experience and connections to the highest bidder is not in the public interest. There are 20 former elected officials who have registered as lobbyists with the Nebraska Legislature since 2000. Half of them started within the last five years, according to Common Cause Nebraska's annual lobbying report released last month. Of those who were listed, 14 registered within a year of leaving public office.
Nebraska lawmakers have typically rejected restrictions, arguing that former lawmakers and state employees should be allowed to take their skills into private-sector jobs. Washington, D.C. – based Public Citizen maintains that public officials could be swayed by the possibility of a lucrative job from an industry that wants special treatment from the government.
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"If you allow public officials to immediately leave office and work as a lobbyist, it raises the potential for corruption," said Craig Holman, Public Citizen's government affairs lobbyist. "You have lawmakers who are looking at their own bottom line."
Hmmm … what if we paid them more to serve as senators, or allowed them to serve longer terms?
Public Citizen praised three states — Iowa, North Dakota and Maryland — for enacting polices that make it more difficult for public officials to cash in on their government service by becoming lobbyists. All three states have enacted cooling-off periods and prohibit any lobbying activity during that time. Other states have similar cooling-off rules. In addition to Nebraska, there are no restrictions in Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
Nebraska Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said he doesn't see a pressing need to change the current system. Scheer said Nebraska's term limits make it difficult for ex-senators to exploit their relationships with former colleagues in the Legislature because a new crop of lawmakers arrives after every election. He said that turnover makes the advantage of being a legislator very short-lived.
He also argued that lobbyists who served in the Legislature provide valuable information to current lawmakers, even when they're pushing an agenda. In an era of term limits, Scheer said lobbyists offer experience and historical knowledge that many sitting senators lack.
Low pay and term limits are bad enough. Let’s don’t further hamper the pool of potential good candidates in future legislatures by throwing up another roadblock. Enough already.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 20 years.