Financial information about politicians can be useful to voters and political watchdog groups – but it’s not always easy to come by. If you do dig into what’s available, what does it say about the wealth of Nebraska state legislators compared to their constituents? Does that relate to conflicts of interest? And where do things stand with efforts to make information more accessible?
The estimated median net worth of U.S. Congressmen and women is more than 14 times higher than the average American household, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. NET News wanted to know if a wealth disparity between representatives and constituents existed in Nebraska, as well - and according to an analysis of state senators’ yearly financial disclosure forms, it does.
What's a senator worth?
Here, we list what percent of the median value for their district that a senator's primary residential property is worth. Ie: the median value for residential property in District 5 is $107,000; Sen. Heath Mello's home is valued at $117,700, or 117.78 percent. In other words, his home his worth roughly 1.2 times the median home for his constituents.
(See below for our methodology.)
District 1, Daniel Watermeier: 384.26 percent
District 2, William Kintner: 110.82 percent
District 3, Scott Price: 117.78 percent
District 4, Peter Pirsch: 110.22 percent
District 5, Heath Mello: 117.78 percent
District 6, John Nelson: 247 percent
District 7, Jeremy Nordquist: 129.59 percent
District 8, Burke Haar: 170.10 percent
District 9, Sara Howard: Rents
District 10, Bob Krist: 98.39 percent
District 11, Ernie Chambers: 34.43 percent
District 12, Steve Lathrop: 325.71 percent
District 13, Tanya Cook: 69.66 percent
District 14, James Smith: 166.59 percent
District 15, Charlie Janssen: 396.46 percent
District 16, Lydia Brasch: 23.04 percent
District 17, David Bloomfield: 132.74 percent
District 18, Scott Lautenbaugh: 105.04 percent
District 19, James Scheer: 273.20 percent
District 20, Brad Ashford: 187.93 percent
District 21, Kenneth Haar: 188.33 percent
District 22, Paul Schumacher: 243.08 percent
District 23, Gerald Johnson: 85.59 percent
District 24, Greg Adams: 285.35 percent
District 25, Kathy Campbell: 175.08 percent
District 26, Amanda McGill: 95.54 percent
District 27, Colby Coash: 106.93 percent
District 28, Kate Bolz: Rents
District 29, Bill Avery: 158.90 percent
District 30, Norman Wallman: 47.51 percent
District 31, Richard Kolowski: 134.60 percent
District 32, Russ Karpisek: 198.53 percent
District 33, Les Seiler: 149.90 percent
District 34, Annette Dubas: 40.13 percent
District 35, Michael Gloor: 261.51 percent
District 36, John Wightman: 217.92 percent
District 37, Galen Hadley: 174.52 percent
District 38, Nelson Carlson: 348.23 percent
District 39, Beau McCoy: 78.22 percent
District 40, Tyson Larson: 112.57 percent
District 41, Kate Sullivan: 182.95 percent
District 42, Thomas Hansen: 144.30 percent
District 43, Albert Davis: 61.56 percent
District 44, Mark Christensen: 463.59 percent
District 45, Sue Crawford: 99.98 percent
District 46, Danielle Conrad: 150.05 percent
District 47, Kenneth Schilz: 172.25 percent
District 48, John Harms: 166.43 percent
District 49, John Murante: 240.24 percent
Where'd we get these figures?
NET News used data from state senators' 2012 statements of financial interest - the most recent available, which detail the legislators' finances for the year 2011 - to get addresses for their primary residences. We then searched county property value data, either through county assessors' websites or by calling their offices directly, to determine if the senator (or current spouse) was listed as the owner of the property and if so, how much it was worth.
Once we compiled that information, we compared it to the median for their district, based on U.S. Census data obtained via the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Keep in mind, these are estimates; for certain farmers and ranchers, it can be difficult to determine where the residential property begins and where the agricultural property starts, even with a team of county assessors at your side. Senators who owned their home in 2011 might now be renting, or vice a versa. Likewise, since we're using 2011 data (the latest available both from the Census Bureau and from the Accountability and Disclosure Commission), we didn't take into account redistricting; however, by and large, the median household income in the old districts vs. the new districts is unlikely to have changed in any drastic way.
Finally, residential property value is only one wealth indicator of many. There are stocks, savings, investments, rental and vacation property, farmland and ranchland and any business ownership value, plus senators' income from their day jobs. This is just a slice of what senators are worth.
On average, Nebraska state legislators’ homes are valued 1.6 times higher than the median for Nebraska as a whole. Sen. Mark Christensen of District 44 tops the list, with primary residential property worth more than four and half times the median for his panhandle district.
“It’s a problem,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I’m not sure it’s got a solution.”
Now, there are exceptions: Sen. Ernie Chambers from Omaha District 11, for example, owns a home worth three times less than the median for his district. But that makes him one of only 9 or 10.
And that 1.6 figure isn’t even counting farmland, ranchland, business property or rental property.
But why is there such a big difference?
Experts like Hibbing said a major factor is the relatively low salary for senators, which at $12,000 a year has remained unchanged for the last quarter-century.
“You know, the salary that we pay our legislators is kind of criminal,” he said. “And I think it does make it very difficult for someone of ordinary means to serve in the Legislature.”
That $12,000 salary was reaffirmed this past November when Nebraskans resoundingly rejected a referendum that would have almost doubled senators’ pay. Along with term limits, the low senatorial wages are intended to keep career politicians out of the unicameral, instead encouraging a so-called citizen’s legislature of ordinary people with ordinary jobs.
But as the data show, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
But so what? Does it really matter if your government representative has more money than you?
Perhaps, perhaps not. What does matter is how senators’ finances could impact their decisions as lawmakers, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“If someone comes into an elected office with an agenda and has a personal stake in a piece of legislation, then that’s the kind of thing the public should know,” he said.
Nebraska regulations state when a potential conflict of interest arises, senators must file a report with the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Last year, 13 reports were filed; so far in 2013, there have been five.
But there’s nothing to prevent senators from still discussing and voting on those bills from which they stand to gain financially. Bender said this actually makes Nebraska pretty average compared to other states.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln District 28 chairs the government, military and veterans affairs committee, and has been active in trying to pass stricter financial disclosure and ethics laws.
“I’ve never seen anything around here that I thought was a crime,” he said slowly, adding, “I’ve seen things that I thought were pretty close to being flagrant conflicts of interest.”
Jack Gould of political advocacy group Common Cause Nebraska listed several real-life examples of conflict of interest in the Legislature that, while technically legal, weren’t necessarily ethical, he said –such as senators sponsoring bills, leaving the Legislature and then being paid by corporations to lobby for those same bills
Then there’s campaign finance reporting.
“People want to know – where is the money coming from? How are they spending it?” he said during the lunch hour rush in the cafeteria at the state capitol building. “Some of the campaign money is spent on some pretty bizarre things. I mean, we’ve found people spending campaign money on buying the prize pig at the county fair. We’ve seen them spending money on entertaining the high school basketball team.”
Right now, it’s not easy to get that data; personal financial disclosure forms, for example, aren’t available digitally. Based on current publishing schedules, candidates’ contributions and expenditures during the intense summer campaign months aren’t available to view until it’s practically time for the election.
Avery is looking to change that; he introduced legislation that would allocate $900,000 from an unused cash fund to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission to digitize their records and reporting processes. This would result in real-time, universal access. Another bill would prevent state senators from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists while the Legislature’s in session. But Avery said any ethics legislation faces an uphill battle.
He pointed to a bill he tried to bring in 2008, with Gov. Dave Heineman’s backing, that would have prevented senators from becoming lobbyists until two years after they left office.
“When the bill came before the committee, nobody showed up to oppose it. The opposition all came from the committee,” he said. “It was the nastiest, hardest hearing - and harshest hearing - I have ever participated in. Because almost every member of that committee ... acted like I had a personal accusation against them.”
Bender, with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said it’s notoriously difficult to pass ethics laws, explaining many elected officials view such legislation not as a preventative measure, but as a witch hunt.
Avery said even if senators aren’t breaching ethical codes or letting potential conflicts of interest affect their decisions, more transparency in government can only be a good thing.
“The voters have to believe that what we are doing is right and proper,” he said. “If they do, then … they may not agree with everything we do, but they will certainly support the process by which we do it.”