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Ongoing research into Money in Politics in Nebraska Unicameral elections has made it clear large donations from elite donors* determine who gets elected. The bottom line is that candidates who raise the most win the most, with most of it coming from elite donors. In the 2020 election, 50 percent of the money contributed to Unicameral candidates came from just 75 elite donors. In 2022, that number dwindled to just 68 donors.
In addition, 75 percent of the elite donors are also partisan donors**. Through their massive donations, which are illegal in most states and at the federal level, elite partisan donors have taken control of the Unicameral, and in the process, they are magnifying partisanship. Their eye-popping donations determine who gets nominated and subsequently elected–not all the time, but enough of the time. Who gets elected determines who gets to be speaker, committee assignments, the legislative agenda, and all that comes with it.
A deeper dive into the Unicameral’s top 68 donors has revealed that an alarming number have links to ultra-right non-profits associated with the Koch brothers’ labyrinth of extremism and self-interest. If your hair isn’t on fire yet, it should be.
*Elite Donor—Donor group that donated half of all money raised by Unicameral candidates.
**Partisan Donor-Donors who donated 80 percent or more to candidates of one party. (Pareto Principle)
DO THINGS GO BETTER WITH KOCH?
Charles Koch, one of the richest persons in the world, has put down deep roots in Nebraska. The basis of his wealth is Koch Industries, a refining and chemicals company based in Wichita, Kansas. He and his brother, David, who died in 2019, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating a complex ultra-right-wing infrastructure of nonprofit organizations that directly connect into the office of Nebraska’s Governor and the Unicameral. This labyrinth of Koch-founded
nonprofits include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and State Policy
Network (SPN). Although not founded by the Kochs, the American Federation of Children (AFC), a conservative dark money nonprofit, promotes school privatization in partnership with ALEC.
To make this clear, these nonprofits do not act in the interests of everyday Nebraskans. Rather, they act in the interests of the ultra-rich in the name of an idealized vision of a “free market” economy. Their agenda: privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers’ rights, suppress voting, roll back environmental protections, and create a tax system that benefits most of those at the very top level of income.
AMERICAN LEGISLATIVE EXCHANGE COUNCIL (ALEC)
ALEC is a corporate bill mill. Sourcewatch states, “Although originally set up by the Kochs, other corporations now fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. Private sector participants pay big bucks to work closely with state legislators in issue-based “Task Forces.” Although each Task Force is co-chaired by a private sector leader and a state legislator, the two are not equal. To ensure the model legislation developed in the task force advances ALEC’s profit-driven and ideologically conservative agenda, the private sector leader has veto power and can even remove public sector members. Once the full ALEC membership approves the model bills, they are “farmed out” to state legislatures to pass into state law.” link
State legislators from across the country, including Nebraska Unicameral Senators, participate in these Task Forces on “scholarships,”–some paid by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. According to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause & DBA Press: “Beyond unparalleled access by lobbyists to lawmakers, what ALEC corporations pay for through the scholarships airfare for lawmakers, hotel rooms for their families, and other expenses. This is often in addition to other donations to ALEC to underwrite and co-sponsor events, plus whatever fees a corporation pays to join ALEC and vote on task forces with legislators.” link
ALEC senators, wined and dined by corporate lobbyists behind closed doors, introduce the “model” legislation back in their own legislatures, often word for word. If this seems unethical and questionably illegal, it does because it is.
As one example, last November, Sen. Brad von Gillern circulated a resolution siding with Israel condemning Hamas. The Omaha World-Herald article stated von Gillern had “crafted” the document. Thirty-eight out of the 49 State Senators signed on to the resolution. The Senator should be awarded a Pinocchio. His document was actually a cut and paste from an ALEC model resolution. One can only speculate how many senators would have signed on had they known the true source. This is an ethical lapse. Von Gillern should apologize to his fellow senators and the public.
- Sen. Ray Aguilar-Committees: Banking, Gov’t & Military, Reference, & Executive link
- Sen. John Arch-Speaker of the Unicameral
- Sen. Thomas Brewer- Chair, Gov’t, Military & Veterans’ Affairs Committee
- Sen. Robert Clements-Chair, Appropriations Committee
- Sen. Steve Halloran-Chair, Agriculture Committee
- Sen. Ben Hansen-Chair, Health & Human Services Committee
- Sen. Lou Ann Linehan-Chair, Revenue Committee
- Sen. John Lowe-Chair, General Affairs Committee
- Sen. Dave Murman-Chair, Education Committee
- Sen. Rita Sanders—Committees: Education, Gov’t, Military & Veterans’ Affairs, Committee on Committees,
Legislative Mental Health Care Capacity Strategic Planning, LR178 Select Interim.
- Sen. Julie Slama-Chair, Banking, Commerce & Insurance Committee
- Sen. Brad von Gillern-Chair, Building Maintenance Committee
AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN (AFC)
The American Federation for Children (AFC), based out of Columbia, Maryland, is a nonprofit Dark Money group founded by Betsy DeVos, former Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration. The AFC promotes school privatization through ALEC. Link In Nebraska, AFC operates as a political action committee (PAC), the Nebraska Federation for Children (NFC). Elite Donors, Pete Ricketts donated $25,000, and James Timmerman donated $50,000 to the NFC-PAC. Gov Jim Pillen tossed in another $1,000. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s daughter, Katie Linehan, is a spokesperson and registered with the NE Accountability and Disclosure Commission (NADC) as a compensated lobbyist for AFC. link In 2022 alone, NFC-PAC disclosed over $800,000 in campaign spending. NFC-PAC is among the 68 top elite contributors, with $24,743 donated directly to 2022 Unicameral candidates. One hundred percent of their donations went to Republican candidates.
Sen. Pete Ricketts is arguably the primary force pushing the Unicameral
toward unparalleled partisanship. But consider this, without his father’s
millions, Ricketts would be just the guy at the party everyone shuns—the odd relative going from person to person, droning on about wacky political ideas. Through his money, Ricketts has managed to normalize Big Money and Dark Money in Nebraska politics. If these same tactics were put into action in other states or at the federal level, he would be sitting out stiff prison sentences.
In 2018, then-Gov. (now US Senator) Ricketts was honored with ALEC’s
annual “Best of the Best” award for his “bold, pro-growth-oriented State of the State address.”
AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY (AFP)
AFP is a Dark Money nonprofit founded in 2004 by the Koch Brothers. As their primary political advocacy group, it is one of the most influential American conservative organizations. AFP opposes labor unions, health care reform, and any effort to combat climate change.
Pete Ricketts founded the Nebraska AFP Chapter. AFP-NE is infamously known for its Dark Money attacks that led to the 2016 downfall of three incumbent Republican State Senators (Al Davis, Jerry Johnson, Les Seiler) who failed to sustain three key vetoes of then-Gov. Ricketts. Compliant senators are recognized as AFP “Torchbearers.”
AFP-NE’s Torchbearers for Freedom. Pictured: Front Row (L to R): Sen. Dan Hughes, Sen. Steve Halloran, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, Jessica Shelburn AFP-NE State Director, Back row (L to R): Sen. Bruce Bostelman, Sen. John Lowe, Sen. Dave Murman, Sen. Rob Clements. Not pictured: Sen. Joni Albrecht, Sen. John Arch, Sen. Tom Brewer, Sen. Tom Briese, Sen. Steve Erdman, Congressman Mike Flood, Sen. Suzanne Geist, Mike Groene, Sen. Ben Hansen, Sen. Mike Hilgers, Sen. Michael Jacobson, Sen. Mike Moser, Sen. Julie Slama, and Sen. Rita Sanders.
In the 2022 Unicameral Election, NE-AFP endorsed the following candidates: Russ Barger (lost), Brian Hardin (won), Teresa Ibach (won), Loren Lippencott (won), Merv Riepe (won), John Arch (won), Robert Clements (won), Ben Hansen (won), Dave Murman (won), and Rick Holdcroft (won).
STATE POLICY NETWORK (SPN)
The State Policy Network (SPN), a sister organization to ALEC, is a web of right-wing think tanks that include 162 tax-exempt nonprofits in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. SPN-founded think tanks spin out cookie-cutter extremist Koch agendas, slightly tweaked from state to state to make them appear homegrown and unique to that state, as well as giving them a veneer of academic credibility.
PLATTE INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMIC RESEARCH (PI)
The Platte Institute (PI) is a Nebraska-based SPN think tank participant in ALEC. It was founded in 2006 by former Sen. Mike Groene and U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts. Ricketts held the title of director and president; Groene was a board member. (Wikipedia)
Until recently, PI’s website included this inducement: “(new hires) will have the opportunity to participate in the Charles Koch Institute nonprofit internship for students. Students selected for this program will receive additional training and resources from the Charles Koch Institute and will receive compensation for their participation.”
In June 2023, the Platte Institute was nominated for a State Policy Network “Bob Williams Award: Biggest State Win” for their participation in three key legislative victories that modeled the ALEC agenda: LB754 (tax cuts that went most to those in the highest income brackets), LB243 (revenue cap for school districts), and LB753 (public money diverted to private schools in the form of scholarships).
The Platte Institute was the original sponsor of the Flatwater Free Press. In a July 2021 interview posted on YouTube, Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the FFP, congratulated Jim Vokal, CEO of the Platte Institute: “We are so excited to be working with you. Congratulations on everything you’ve built, and yeah, I can’t wait to look forward to work with you in the future.”
The Platte Institute conceals its extremism well. Last October, the PI held its annual legislative summit outlining workforce shortages, taxes, and education issues in the 2024 upcoming legislative session. The Omaha World-Herald article covering the event failed to mention the Platte Institute’s deep ties to the Koch network and that several state senators participating in the event had well-established connections with ALEC, including Speaker John Arch, who figured
prominently in the article.
PI-THE KOCH SIDE OF LIFE
The Platte Institute is not required to disclose its funders, but major foundation supporters can be found through IRS filings. The following is a (partial) list of PI donors with connections to ALEC and SPN. Also noted are donors with
connections to the Koch network.
BLUEPRINT NEBRASKA-MAKE IT (seem) REAL
Blueprint Nebraska is an ultra-right-wing approach to economic growth originated by the Platte Institute in partnership with ALEC member, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Aksarben Foundation. Jim Smith (former State Senator, and former ALEC State Chair) serves as President of Blueprint Nebraska and is also a “team member” of the Platte Institute. He is currently a member of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council. Sen. Ricketts and Gov. Jim Pillen (endorsed by AFP) have served on Aksarben’s Board of Governors.
In 2013 Smith was the subject of an ethics complaint filed by the Center for Media and Democracy. CMD alleged that Smith had not disclosed nearly $1,500 in travel expenses related to a trip to Canada sponsored by ALEC. The complaint stated the government of Alberta province and another unnamed benefactor paid for the flight of nine state legislators. Alberta and ALEC have been known to support the Keystone XL pipeline, whose developer, TransCanada, visited with the lawmakers on the trip. At the time of the complaint, Smith was ALEC’s public sector chairman in Nebraska. link
Smith denied the allegations—not a problem in Nebraska as the Unicameral does not have a Code of Ethics and the Nebraska Accountability & Disclosure Commission (NADC) rarely holds sitting senators accountable.
NEBRASKANS SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT ALEC,
THE PLATTE INSTITUTE, AND BLUEPRINT
- Blueprint Nebraska is marketed across the state by ALEC financial supporters, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Aksarben Foundation without acknowledgment of its extremist connections to ALEC, SPN, AFP, and the Koch Brothers. Link
- Three former state senators are employees of the Platte Institute, Laura Ebke, Jim Smith, and Nicole Fox. Fox is a registered lobbyist. Smith is President of Blueprint, ALEC member, registered lobbyist and former ALEC state chair. Ebke serves as “Senior Fellow”.
- Contributions from elite, partisan contributors have a huge impact on the outcome of Unicameral races. Below is a list of elite contributors and the amount they contributed to 2022 Unicameral candidates who also have, previously had, connections to ALEC. Link In most states, donations of this magnitude would be illegal. Many states and the federal government ban direct donations from corporations and limit political action committees (PACs)
THE KOCH EXTREMIST AGENDA-NOT A MATCH FOR NEBRASKA
Looking at the outcome of the 2022 Unicameral elections, a reasonable person might conclude Nebraska had turned an even deeper shade of red. However, when Nebraskans are asked about their take on the issues, they are pretty much the same as those in purple and blue states. We are not only geographically in the middle, but everyday Nebraskans also fall in the middle of the political spectrum.
- Nebraskans believe climate change is real and manmade. ALEC Model Bills promote uncertainty about climate science. Link However most of us in rural Nebraska (no bastion of liberalism) believe climate change is real and manmade according to a 2021 Nebraska Rural Poll conducted by the University of Nebraska.
- Nebraskans overwhelmingly support public schools. According to recent Gallup polling, nearly 80 percent support public education. link The AFC, Betsy DeVoss, approach to diverting tax money to private schools does not line up with Nebraska’s widespread support for public education.
- Nebraskans don’t mind being taxed as long as it’s fair. According to the OpenSky Institute, ALEC-inspired LB754, “modeling suggests that three-quarters of the personal income tax benefit will go to the top 20% of Nebraska wage earners. The bottom 20% would see cuts averaging $5. And because of how Nebraska taxes corporations, it’s estimated that 83% of the corporate tax cut will flow out of state.” LB754 doesn’t begin to pass the smell test for fairness.
- Nebraskans support broadening access to healthcare, as evidenced by the passage of the Medicaid Expansion Initiative in 2018. ALEC model healthcare legislation includes proposals to privatize Medicare and Medicaid.
- Only 49 percent of Nebraska voters are registered Republicans, but, defying logic, Republicans hold a supermajority in the Unicameral (32-17). If the Unicameral truly represented Nebraska, Republicans wouldn’t even hold a majority–the Unicameral would consist of 24 Republican Senators, 13 Democrats, 11 Non-Partisan, and 1 Libertarian. Link The extremist Koch agenda would be a non-starter. The bottom line: Big Money and Dark Money distort the will of the people.
RECLAIMING NEBRASKA’S SECOND HOUSE
The Unicameral was established with the vision of a “Second House”, the citizens of the state of Nebraska. Now our Second House is under attack. That’s us—we, the citizens of Nebraska, are under attack by Koched-up, ALEC- indoctrinated senators. Sen. Steve Erdman provides an excellent example. His Legislative Resolution 2CA would return Nebraska to a partisan, bicameral legislature. If you ever had occasion to meet Sen. Erdman, you would recognize right off that he didn’t think this up on his own–it’s the official position of the Ricketts’s controlled NE Republican Party. Who in Nebraska is clamoring for more partisanship and an end to our nation’s only Unicameral? Charlyne Berens posed the question well in the Nebraska Examiner: “Our nonpartisan, one-house Legislature isn’t broken, so why fix it?” Why, indeed.
Koched-up Senators who came into office through Big Money and Dark Money don’t like it when the Second House fills the halls of the Capitol. Clearly, they do not see us as fellow colleagues. During public hearings, they slump and nod off in their cushy government-provided swivel chairs while the Second House waits patiently, lining the halls for hours to have their few minutes before the microphone to respectfully offer their diligently prepared testimony. Nobody waits on us, sees to our comfort; no one gets us government-provided soft drinks. The ALECs stare off into space, surrendering to that afternoon nap, fidgeting with their phones.
New rules are in the works—you can expect they will be up to more mischief this legislative session. ALEC Chair, Sen. Linehan doesn’t like repetitive testimony and hearings that run late. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Linehan expressed little support for the Second House, “No one is listening after 8 o’clock anyway.” Besides her daughter can fill her in.
The ALECs don’t need the Second House, we’re just in the way of Linehan’s bedtime and Erdman’s nap. The ALECs get their marching orders from their elite campaign contributors and their lobbyists. Filling the halls serves only to annoy them. Until we have COMPREHENSIVE CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM*, our only recourse is to fight fire with fire. If we want results at the Unicameral, do it the new Nebraska way—line the halls, but you also need saddlebags of cash and a stable full of lobbyists.
*Scroll down 10 for Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform
TOP 68 ELITE CONTRIBUTORS
Sixty-eight contributors contributed slightly over 50 percent of the money raised by 2022 Unicameral candidates in the last election cycle
Note: Contributions of $250 or less received in a calendar year are not required to be itemized on NADC campaign finance reports, however many candidates opt to itemize all or part of them.
TOP 68 CONTRIBUTORS
- Column 1-Rank
- Column 2-Elite Contributor*
- Column 3-if “yes”, contributor has documented connection with ALEC,
Americans for Prosperity and/or American Childrens Federation.
- Column 4-Partisanship–contributor donated 80 percent or more to
either Democrat or Republican candidates.
- Columns 5,6,7-City, State, Zip
- Column 8-Amount contributed to 2022 Unicameral candidates
in the 2021-2022 election cycle.
*The NADC does not require contributions to be consistently disclosed using donors’ legal names and/or residential street addresses although they are required under campaign finance law, 49-1457, 49-1473. Each variation of a donor’s name and/or address disclosed on campaign finance reports becomes a unique contributor to FollowTheMoney. Starting with the FTM downloaded data, variations of donors’ names and addresses were matched up and merged using standard research tools and a lifetime of living in Nebraska.
Follow the Money (FTM), using NADC data, reported $6,816,249 in campaign contributions to 2022 Unicameral elections. FTM compiles data through “election cycles” The data used in this article covers contributions disclosed as having been received in the calendar years 2021 and 2022 for Unicameral candidates that filed NADC campaign finance reports. Candidates are not required to file reports unless they raise or spend $5000. Fifteen out of 67 Unicameral candidates did not file NADC campaign finance reports.
FollowTheMoney.org is a non-partisan, non-profit founded by the National Institute on Money in Politics. FTM compiles campaign donor and lobbyist information from government disclosure agencies and makes the information accessible to the public. link The NADC lists FTM on their website as a Link of Interest.
Make Elections About the Voters Not Big Money Interests
- Limit donations from individuals. The donation limit of our surrounding states ranges from $200 to $2600 for state legislative races. Considering the wage and income levels of the great majority of Nebraskans, lower donation limits are more realistic and will provide candidates with a broader base of support.
- Differentiate types of nonindividuals and apply limits accordingly. Four out of six neighboring states have banned corporate donations entirely, the other two states have set limits. Limits or bans have also been put in place for unions and PACs.
- Eliminate the $250 Black Hole. The $250 itemizing threshold creates needless mystery throughout campaign finance reporting, not just with itemizing donations. The same $250 applies to expenditures creating another “Black Hole” of mystery money. For most Nebraskans, $250 is not an insignificant amount of money and should be fully disclosed.
- Implement a “Revolving Door” cooling-off period. Most surrounding states have a two-year cooling-off period before former public officials may lobby their former colleagues.
- Eliminate In-session fundraisers. They pose an ethical challenge with which our State Senators should simply not be faced. It is an easy fix—ban donations while the Legislature is in session.
- End pay-to-play. Vendors must be assured their bids for state contracts will be judged on merit, not by political intrigue through Big Money donations. Nebraska law wisely prohibits lottery vendors from donating—apply the same rule to all state contracts over a designated amount.
- Require robust enforcement of existing laws. This would include the consistent use of donors’ legal names and residence addresses. Late filing fees should be paid in full with few exceptions.
- End campaign-to-campaign donations. Donors rightfully need to be assured their donations are used as legally intended—”for the purpose of influencing the nomination or election of a candidate”.
- Regulate Dark Money communications prior to an election. We need to know who is behind the attack ads and flyers filling our mailboxes and airwaves in the days before an election.
- Make disclosure voter-friendly. The NADC’s antiquated computer system does not provide campaign finance information in easy-to-use formats for the general public.