By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — A Nebraska lawmaker has introduced a bill that appears to chip away at a ban on public officials using your tax dollars to campaign for or against a candidate or ballot measure.
Hastings Sen. Les Seiler said the bill is meant to make sure that when public employees or officials speak out on an issue, they’re doing so with the consent of their governing board.
He said the bill was prompted by a case of two public power employees were fined by the state for spending government money to campaign against a candidate running for their power district’s board of directors.
However, the executive director of the Nebraska Accountability & Disclosure Commission said the bill weakens the state Political Accountability and Disclosure Act.
Frank Daley said the way he reads the bill, it creates another exception to the ban on public officials and employees using public resources for campaign purposes.
The bill, LB294, amends the state Political Accountability and Disclosure Act to add language saying the law doesn’t prevent a public official or employee “from communicating authorized information for the purpose of educating the public or from participating in a public forum, concerning issues germane to the office or employment of the public official or public employee.”
Seiler said the bill is designed to make sure that when a public employee speaks on behalf of a public entity, they’re doing so with permission of that entity. He said the bill’s aim is to avoid a situation like the one in northwest Nebraska, where two administrators of the Northwest Rural Public Power District were fined $2,000 by the Accountability and Disclosure Commission for using public resources to campaign against a candidate for their board of directors. They’re appealing in district court.
In April 2012, the commission ruled that Rolland Skinner, manager of the power district, and Les Tlustos, consumer service director for the power district, used public funds to campaign against Michael Van Buskirk. After Van Buskirk criticized the board of directors for being against wind energy, the two did a radio interview, ran radio infomercials and sent opinion pieces to newspapers criticizing wind energy and contradicting Van Buskirk in the runup to the November 2010 election.
Seiler said he was “trying to avoid members of the public body being fined by A&D” by “making comments on public elections when they don’t have the authority” from their governing body.
Daley said the bill language is somewhat confusing.
“It appears to me it’s intended as an exception to the prohibition against public officials and public employees using public resources for campaign purposes,” he said.
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