System should help lawmakers stay independent

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

How do you let your representative know what you think about an issue that's important to you? First and most importantly of all, there is your vote. We can pay close attention to the issues, find out which candidate fits the best with our views, then try to help send him or her to office.

Then there are telephones, letters, faxes and e-mails. Most elected officials probably will tell you that a personal letter or phone call from a neighbor carries more weight than some mass-produced electronic campaign.

Finally, we may belong to a trade or professional group large enough to make our voices heard in Lincoln or Washington. Like anything, political influence can cost money, even when it's applied legally and ethically.

There is nothing wrong, for example, with grocery stores expressing concern about proposals to collect deposits on aluminum cans, for example. They would be in the front line of such a battle, and have to guard against anything that might cut into their already slim profit margin.

But looking at the numbers is enough to give one pause.

According to an Omaha World Herald analysis, Nebraska's 49 legislators collected $862,000 in salary and expense reimbursements last year.

Outside the legislative chamber, nearly 300 hired lobbyists collected nearly $8 million to try to influence the 49.

Most of that went to 15 freelance lobbyists or lobbying firms staffed by -- you guessed it -- former legislators.

They include Tom Vickers of Farnam who represented our area, as well as Loran Schmit, Dennis Rasmussen, and Chris Abboud as the highest paid ones.

The leading firm of Ruth-Mueller-Robak collected more than a million dollars last year, thanks in part to the help of partners Kim Robak, a former lieutenant governor and University of Nebraska vice president, as well as her husband, William Mueller.

A state senator can talk about being strong-willed and independent, but when he or she makes a salary of $12,000 a year, and talks daily with lobbyists who take in 10 times the money he or she does, self-confidence may be hard to come by.

With 20 legislators ready to leave in 2006 and another 24 in 2008 because of the two-term limit, there will be plenty of experienced talent available for lobbying jobs.

As we move forward, we should look at ways to preserve independent thinking in our representatives, yet assure that they are as responsive to as many of their constituents as possible. That may mean compensation more in line with the responsibilities we entrust to them. And, it might be a good time to reconsider term limits altogether.

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