LINCOLN, Neb. — A decade ago a landmark supreme court case transformed the way election campaigns are financed.
In the years since that decision, spending on election campaigns has become an bidding war where big money donors spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to swing an election.
That even happens right here in Nebraska. Which brings up the question, who is deciding our elections? Is it the voters, or those big money donors?
To find the roots of our campaign finance issue we have to start 10 years ago in 2010 with the Citizens United Supreme court case.
In that case the supreme court ruled limits on corporate contributions to campaigns equaled limits to free speech, so those limits were removed, but prior to that ruling Nebraska, among other states, had its own laws focused on limiting campaign spending.
“Well historically we had some pretty good laws, we had the campaign finance limitation act the CFLA which really was in place from 1990 through 2012,” said Jack Gould, Issues Chairman for Common Cause Nebraska.
Gould says the Supreme court ruling on citizens united put an end to Nebraska’s CFLA.
“That was challenged after citizens united, where money and speech are supposed to be the same thing which really means people with money get to speak louder than people who don’t have money,” said Gould.
Removing the CFLA meant removing all limits to campaign contributions here in Nebraska,
“There are no limits to what an individual person can contribute to a given campaign like there are at the federal level, and I think national groups in a variety of areas are picking up on that and its turning into a free for all,” said Ann Hunter-Pirtle with Stand Schools.
Ann Hunter-Pirtle is the executive director for Stand for Schools, an organization here in the state that advocates for public schools in Nebraska.
“We are seeing year over year as each election cycle goes by we are seeing more out of state money coming in to influence Nebraska elections,” said Hunter-Pirtle.
She said this year it has been a California billionaire, not a Nebraskan, spending the most money on the issue.
“William Oberndorf is a California Tech billionaire who has spent a great deal of money over a number of years in support of school privatization,” said Hunter-Pirtle.
According to filings made with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Oberndorf has donated $125,000 this year to Invest in Kids Nebraska, a project of the American Federation for Children, the national organization focused on school privatization that was founded by current Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
According to those same NADC filings, Invest in Kids is spending $50,000 total on two different Nebraska races this year.
“The problem we see is that folks who are never going to have to live with these policies in Nebraska, who won’t be affected by them in any way are trying to determine the outcomes, I think that should be a concern for all of us not just on this issue but a host of others,” said Hunter-Pirtle.
It’s not just wealthy individuals outside of the state there are some in the state too.
“In the case of the Republican party, they have had quite the internal battle over Senator Slama who was appointed by the governor and Janet Palmtag who is trying to get the seat,” said Gould
That race between Slama and Palmtag has been defined by a series of negative ads towards Palmtag that have gathered attention across the state.
The ads show they were payed for the Nebraska Republican Party, but they don’t have to disclose who provided them the funds for those ads.
Gould says the evidence points to the ads funding potentially coming from the family of Governor Pete Ricketts, who originally appointed Palmtag’s opponent to her seat.
“these are attack ads, well we can’t say the governor did this you can’t say well it’s his money, but you know he donated to the party that amount and in that report he is the only donor in June with that much money and here is all these expenditures that go out on attack ads,” said Gould.
Campaign filings for June show Joe and Marlene Ricketts donating $200,000 dollars to the party that month, and the party reported spending around $111,000 on the ads. Donations from the Rickett’s family were the only ones in that filing in excess of $100,000.
(not sure if we can include a Ricketts statement here since my research showed it was the Family of Governor Ricketts and not he himself who donated)
While both the Oberndorf and Rickett’s donations were fairly unusual for Nebraska elections those paying attention to where the money is coming from say this is eye-opening.
“This really is a new phenomenon, this isn’t something that’s been happening forever. In Nebraska this is a change that we are seeing take place slowly over time but its ramping up each election cycle. It’s becoming more of a problem and will continue to be until we do something as a state,” said Hunter-Pirtle.
So for better or for worse its clear that big money has a big influence on politics here in the Cornhusker state and the experts see the amount of money being thrown into Nebraska races grow every year and they say without a new focus on limiting campaign spending Nebraska elections could stop coming down to who shows up to vote and more about who shows up to write a check.