The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

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By Steve Erdman
47th District 

Straight Talk From Steve

Lobbyists

 

Should government agencies be allowed to hire lobbyists?

This is a question that has bothered me ever since 2016 when I first went to Lincoln to serve as a State Senator. Lobbyists are supposed to represent the interests of select groups of people, not the interests of government entities. This is an important question to ask because last year 20.3 million dollars was spent on paying lobbyists to influence State Senators in the Unicameral Legislature.

The problem with allowing government entities to be represented by lobbyists is that it undermines the nature of what a government entity is supposed to be. Governments are supposed to serve the people, but when state agencies and entities are allowed to hire lobbyists, this becomes inverted. No longer do these state agencies and entities serve the people; instead, the people begin serving them, and that seems backwards to me.

When it comes to funding a state agency, State Senators need to be able to work with the person in charge, not a professional spin doctor. Transparency gets lost when government agencies hire outsiders to represent them. Lobbyists allow presidents, directors and secretaries to cower underneath their desks and hide from the people who need to hold them accountable.

While it is impossible to know exactly how much State money goes to paying lobbyists by organizations representing government entities, we know that they cost the State of Nebraska a lot of money. The salaries of these lobbyists are often paid for out of the State’s coffers and this creates a very twisted and inefficient situation. Whenever State monies are used to pay for lobbyists, it puts the State into the awkward position of having to pay someone a lot of money just to come in and ask the State for even more money.

In order to illustrate what I am talking about, consider how the University of Nebraska hires lobbyists. According to Open Secrets, a website which tracks where government monies go, the University of Nebraska has already paid six lobbyists this year most of which came from Cassidy and Associates for a total of $80,000. However, in December 2017 the University of Nebraska hired former State Senator, Heath Mellow, as a new Vice President. Mello’s new job description included becoming the director of state relations. That’s university-speak for being a paid lobbyist. Today Mello draws an annual salary of $243,000. That’s a quarter of a million dollars!

The University of Nebraska buys a lot of influence with State Senators. According to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, in 2021 the University of Nebraska spent $30,685 on entertainment, $1,782 on gifts, and $19,760 on tickets all for individual State Senators. Although not technically associated with the University of Nebraska system, the Friends of the University PAC contributed a total of $84,750 to the campaigns of individual State Senators.

So, who pays the most to influence public policy in the State of Nebraska? The top five spending principals in 2021 were the University of Nebraska at $180,000 (not including Heath Mello’s salary), the League of Municipalities at $155,000, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators at $152,000, the Nebraska Association of County Officials at $135,000, and Altria Client Services (representing big tobacco) at $129,000. As you can see, four of the top five principals represent government entities.

The State of Nebraska can no longer afford this kind of wasteful spending. Inflation has soared to 8.5 percent, gas prices have reached new all-time highs, and property taxes are out of control. Yet, state agencies continue to believe that the taxpayers of Nebraska should pay for them to hire lobbyist whose only job is to beg the State for more money.

 

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