Group vows to work to change lobbying law

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The political watchdog group Common Cause said it will not file a compliant about a recent trip that saw 13 Nebraska lawmakers go to Las Vegas and stay at a hotel which is lobbying to legalize casino gambling in Nebraska.

Common Cause insisted, however, that it will work to strengthen the state law that requires what is spent on such trips to be reported.

"I wish we could do more, but it doesn't look like we have the legal grounds," Common Cause spokesman Jack Gould said Monday.

The lawmakers accepted expense-paid trips last month to a meeting sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council -- known as ALEC.

They stayed at the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino, whose owner is lobbying the Legislature to legalize casinos in Nebraska.

While ALEC paid for the rooms, the Venetian and another casino hosted two dinners for the lawmakers.

Nebraska lawmakers cannot accept gifts worth more than a total of $50 a month from a lobbyist. Food and drink "for immediate consumption" and transportation around the state are excluded.

There is no limit on the gifts a senator can accept from sources other than lobbyists. However, if such a gift is valued at more than $100, the senator must disclose it.

What gifts were given by the Venetian will not be revealed until next April, when lawmakers are required to file annual reports with the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Gould said he would work to have legislation introduced next year to require that those reports be filed more often.

"They should be filed quarterly -- that would make it more visible earlier," Gould said.

Common Cause is also interested in closing what it calls a loophole in Nebraska law regarding ALEC, which often pays for trips to match state lawmakers from across the nation with representatives from big corporations.

Several Nebraska lawmakers routinely take trips to ALEC meetings. Some are paid for by ALEC, while others are billed to taxpayers.

While ALEC itself does not lobby its meeting participants, Common Cause is concerned because most of ALEC's members actively lobby lawmakers.

ALEC counts or has counted among its members such corporate giants as GTE, Chevron, Chrysler, Philip Morris, Archer Daniels Midland, Bayer Pfizer, Union Pacific Railroad and Arthur Anderson.

And because ALEC is not a lobbyist or principal, it does not have to report when it pays for lawmakers to attend one of its meetings.

Frank Daley, executive director of the Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said ALEC has a fund-raiser each year to which lobbyists can contribute.

That money is in turn used to send lawmakers on various trips.

But because the money is pooled and ALEC is not required to file public disclosures of its activities, it is all but impossible to see who is giving the money and how it is being spent, Daley said.

"'That's getting around the law," Gould said. "If they are going to be able to lump together large sums of money -- that needs to be more visible."

Sen. Pat Engel of South Sioux City, who is on the ALEC board of directors, said the meetings cover many issues, ranging from commerce and economic development to education and fiscal policy.

ALEC spokesman David Wargin told The Associated Press earlier that the meetings are "a venue where ideas are exchanged."


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State Accountability and Disclosure Commission


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