Conflicts and disinterest: Increasing legislative transparency in Nebraska

As Bill Avery walked through the Nebraska State Capitol, he began to spot a lot of familiar faces.

The state senator recognized the visitors as his wife’s coworkers at an insurance company, who had come to lobby on a bill on that day’s agenda.

Avery scrambled to file a conflict of interest form with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. As his colleagues filed their votes, Avery abstained. After the bill passed some of Avery’s fellow lawmakers asked him why he sat out the process. When he explained his circumstance some legislators told Avery that what he’d done was noble, while others argued that it wasn’t a conflict at all, and he should have voted anyway.

Looking back on that vote, which occurred a few years ago when the retired University of Nebraska professor was still a freshman in the legislature, Avery says he would still “rather err on the side of caution.” But he also wants to get rid of the confusion and lack of oversight when it comes to legislative conflicts of interest.

Avery is sponsoring a bill that would force legislators who have a direct and personal financial stake in a bill to abstain from voting. Under current law, lawmakers are required file a conflict of interest form with the disclosure commission; last year, Avery got a provision passed that led to the publication of those disclosures. Still, there is nothing in the law that prohibits a legislator with an obvious conflict from casting a vote.

Such conflict disclosures are not rare, with Avery estimating that “a half-dozen or more” are filed in each session of the state's unicameral governing body.

“But,” Avery continued, “it is generally understood there are probably a lot more that ought to be filed. We don’t have any procedure that monitors this.”

In some cases neglect is to blame, with a legislator simply forgetting to file the form or, as Avery did, losing track of what bills are on that day’s agenda. But in one case, which Avery (pictured, right) now credits with drawing his interest to this area of law, one senator championed a piece of legislation without acknowledging that it would benefit him directly. Before the bill went to a vote, the senator’s conflict was discovered, despite his denials.

“Once enough of us found out about it,” Avery said, “we intervened. That bill was completely gutted and another bill was amended into it.”

In committee, Avery’s bill faced opposition from legislators who complained that disclosure reports could be used in future campaigns against legislators who choose to vote in spite of a conflict. Avery’s response to such a criticism is blunt: If you have a conflict, you shouldn’t vote.

Despite early snags in getting the bill through committee, the proposal has the support of Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, who can help deliver the legislation to the floor. Avery says bills like this are sometimes seen as an attack on legislators’ honesty, or an accusation of guilt, which he thinks is missing the point.

“The issue is, let’s make sure that we have policies in place that will help us avoid doing something improper,” Avery said. “Because perception is reality in the eyes of the public -- if they perceive that you’re involved in conflicts of interest, then they lose confidence in the process of government.”

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