A new national report underscores the fact that Nebraska, unlike most other states, allows state officials who want to profit from their government experience and connections after leaving office to become lobbyists with virtually no obstacles.
The report, based on an analysis by Public Citizen, a consumer-rights advocacy group, found that Nebraska is one of just seven states with no restrictions on former lawmakers, governors or other elected officials working to influence their former colleagues. The other states with no restrictions are Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming
At least 20 former elected officials have registered as lobbyists with the Nebraska Legislature since 2000, with half of that number starting within the last five years. Of those who were listed in the Common Cause Nebraska’s annual lobbying report, 14 registered within a year of leaving office.
Public Citizen praised three states — Iowa, North Dakota and Maryland — for enacting policies that make it more difficult for public officials to cash in on their government service by becoming lobbyists. All three of those states have enacted “cooling off” periods and prohibit any “lobbying activity” during that period.
Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, a former Iowa Democratic Senate Majority Leader who now works as a lobbyist, said Iowa’s two-year waiting period gives former legislators time to consider their options and helps avoid conflicts of interest.
Current Iowa law dates to a scandal in the 1990s involving an investment scheme known as the Iowa Trust that promised above-average interest payments to local governments that deposited their property tax revenue with the organization.
The group got into financial trouble when the market shifted, and was almost immediately scrutinized by Iowa lawmakers. That scrutiny called attention to the fact that then-Senate President Joe Welsh, who had been heavily involved in passing the law that allowed the trust to operate in Iowa, had been hired as a salesman for the Iowa Trust.
“It just kind of looked bad,” Gronstal said, adding that he considers the current Iowa law a good policy, even though it forced him to delay his lobbying work. “It’s not like it completely stops you from using your legislative skills,” he said. “It reassures the public without being an absolute ban.”
Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature Jim Scheer said he doesn’t see a pressing need to change the current system in that state, noting that Nebraska’s term limits makes it difficult for ex-senators to exploit their relationships with former colleagues in the Legislature. Nebraska lawmakers can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms, but can return to office after a four-year waiting period.
Scheer also argued that, in an era of term limits, lobbyists who served in the Legislature provide experience and historical knowledge that many sitting senators lack. There should be other — non-elected — state employees who can provide that same “historic knowledge” without the appearance of any conflict of interest.
Like Iowa, most other states require cooling-off periods, ranging from six months to two years but only prohibit “lobbying contacts,” such as a phone call to try to influence a former colleague in the legislature. Those laws contain loopholes that still let former public officials join lobbying firms and organize lobbying campaigns.
The fact that 43 of the 50 states have laws prohibiting an immediate move from an elected position to a lobbying position underscores the fact that most lawmakers in the vast majority of states see merit in those laws. Nebraska should join that group of 43.