By J.L. Schmidt - Statehouse Correspondent, The Nebraska Press Association
After 20 years of fits and starts, the Nebraska Supreme Court has finally declared the Campaign Finance Limitation Act “unconstitutional.” Dead. Finished. Stick a fork in it, it’s done.
Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on Arizona’s campaign finance law apparently forced the hand of Nebraska’s Judiciary. Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission Executive Director Frank Daley asked Attorney General Jon Bruning a year ago for an opinion on the constitutionality. The Commission monitors campaign spending. Bruning said it was likely unconstitutional.
Back in 1992, lawmakers decided that candidates should be allowed to decide if they would abide by certain spending caps. That decision would trigger whether or not the candidate who had raised the least amount of campaign cash would be eligible for public funding. The measure also required candidates to report who gives them money and how much they expected to spend.
The U.S. Supreme Court voided only the matching funds portion of the Arizona law, not the validity of using public funds for campaign financing. The Nebraska court struck down the entire law, which includes contribution limits tied to spending limits and penalties for violations. Nebraska Chief Justice Mike Heavican wrote that the Nebraska law does not serve a compelling state interest to justify the burdens placed on a candidate’s First Amendment rights.
Somewhere between enactment of the law in 1992 and the August 2012 shelving of the measure, came University of Nebraska Regent Dave Hergert’s 2004 defeat of incumbent Don Blank. The challenger from Scottsbluff spent significantly more than he had estimated on the race and topped limits that should have released funds to Blank. But Hergert missed late reporting deadlines and caused the McCook dentist to miss out on thousands of dollars.
Hergert’s admission that he broke the campaign financing laws was only the tip of the iceberg. He was unceremoniously removed from the Board of Regents and later fell into other legal trouble with financing of his multi-state grain handling operations.
Before the recent ruling, it had been widely accepted that the 2012 Session of the Nebraska Legislature would see attempts to gut the current law. Now, proponents such as Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery and Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, with support from watchdog group Common Cause Nebraska, will try to create a new law to control campaign money – especially from special interest groups.
Common Cause Executive Director Jack Gould says it appears that running for public office “is now a rich man’s game.” That, he adds, is not what was intended by the founding fathers.
Of Note: Lest you think this is a new issue spurred by national interest in recent years, Nebraska’s political history indicates that the late Fred Seaton – a longtime newspaper publisher who served in several federal cabinet posts and became President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior (1956-1961) – ran for Nebraska Governor in 1962. He was defeated by incumbent Frank B. Morrison and “became a strong advocate for campaign finance reform in Nebraska.” That was 50 years ago.