As voters turn their attention away from politics and politicians, special interest groups and political power brokers are ramping up their efforts. Newly elected senators have had their first dinner with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Lobbyists are busy scheduling lunch, drinks and dinners with senators to push their agendas, counting votes and promoting senators for specific roles and committees.
Coalitions are forming and votes are traded for seats on the Executive Board, Committee on Committees, and for committee chairmanships.
Before the first televised minute of the opening day, much of the legislative agenda for the next two years already will be determined in a process shielded from public view.
Unlike campaign contributions, which must be reported, food and drink for immediate consumption are exempt from disclosure rules in Nebraska. Lobby reports must be filed when lobbyists are active on a specific bill, but there is no public record of the topics lobbied over wine and steaks at the Nebraska Club in the weeks leading up to the legislative session.
During a campaign, voters are front and center. Every candidate promises to fight for you, your family and your wallet. As a voter, the currency of your political power is your vote on Nov. 6. You have spent that political capital. However, your job is not finished. When you want to forget about politics and get back to the routine of your life and family is when you need to pay the most attention and be the most engaged. The voices of the 696,000 Nebraskans spoke on Election Day. If voters go silent, the voice whispering in your senators’ ear will not be that of the taxpayers who elected them.
You will compete with the expense accounts of corporations pushing for tax credits, incentives and special carve outs to make their businesses more profitable at your expense. Nonprofits funded by billionaires push their agendas with an army of paid staff and a blizzard of “reports.” New senators are quickly indoctrinated about the “institution” of the Legislature and encouraged to fully immerse themselves and their families in the social network capitol politics. Senators are encouraged to exercise their “independence,” which is political code for voting in opposition to their district or campaign positions.
As a voter and taxpayer, don’t let your political influence end at the ballot box. Make sure your senator knows how you feel about issues before the Legislature. Call and email their office. Attend town halls and respond to call-in shows. Do not assume campaign promises tell you how your senator will vote.
The highest profile issue during my first year was the death penalty repeal. Interest groups were giving me bad “polling data,” telling me my constituents supported repeal. Lobbyists, acting on their own, told me how to find “political cover” in a group.
Voters should get involved and stay informed. Ask questions and demand answers. Government works best when it is transparent and accountable to the people. The election may be finished, but the work of the citizenry to hold elected representatives accountable has just begun.
Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell represents District 38 in the Nebraska Legislature. The district encompasses southwest Buffalo County and all of Clay, Franklin, Kearney, Nuckolls, Phelps and Webster counties.