By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - More groups than ever are turning to lobbyists to try to exert influence in the Nebraska Legislature, but spending on specific lawmakers remains difficult to track, a government watchdog group said Tuesday.
Common Cause Nebraska said in a report that the number of groups hiring lobbyists rose to a record 527 this year, from 506 in 2014. The groups spent nearly $14.1 million last year, most of which went to lobbyists.
Common Cause Nebraska said tracking perks such as food, golf outings and event tickets is difficult because all are categorized as entertainment. Jack Gould, the group’s issues chairman, said money spent by the groups can’t be tracked to specific events or recipients.
“The public should be able to know how much their senator is getting lobbied,” Gould said. “Then the public can make a decision as to whether that lobbying is paying off by looking at the legislation that senator is backing.”
Common Cause Nebraska compiled the report from disclosures filed with the Legislature by lobbyists and the groups that hire them, like companies, trade groups, hospitals and more.
The group that spent the most last year was the Association of Nebraska Ethanol Producers, at $190,191, according to the report. The second-largest was the League of Nebraska Municipalities, at $179,551; at third was the University of Nebraska, which spent $160,135.
The report also criticizes lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers for senators, some of whom aren’t eligible to run again because of term limits.
Senators can use the money to seek another state office, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. They also can spend the funds on tickets to campaign fundraising events for other candidates, travel related to their official duties or to solicit opinions from their constituents, said Frank Daley, the commission’s executive director.
Many of the events are held during the legislative session, and the Common Cause Nebraska report said most contributions are kept below $250, the limit beyond which individual donations must be disclosed.
As a result, the “bundled” money raised during such events appears as a single cash total, making it more difficult to track. The events are often billed as legislative breakfasts or lunches, with invitations that call for $100 contributions at the door.
“By acting as a conduit for campaign funds, the lobby grows in its ability to gain access and influence,” the report said.
Gould said 20 states prohibit in-session fundraisers, but efforts to pass similar restrictions in Nebraska have stalled in the Legislature.
The report calls for more specific disclosure requirements, including a breakdown of lobbyist expenses per elected official and creating a separate reporting category for food and beverages. Nebraska should prohibit lobbyists from “bundling” campaign contributions and ban all in-session fundraisers, the report said.
Gould said lawmakers should also receive more than their current $12,000 salary, arguing that the low pay increases the allure of gifts from special interests.
Nebraska’s legislative sessions last up to 90 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years, but senators have said they also work during the interim on legislative studies and on weekends meeting with constituents. Many senators are retired, or work jobs that give them the flexibility to spend long hours at the Capitol.
Raising their salaries would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters. The last attempt to do so failed, when voters rejected a measure in 2012 that would have raised legislative salaries to $22,500 a year.