Do Nebraska lawmakers need staffers all year long?

STAFFED UP: Nebraska lawmakers don’t make much money, but they don’t skimp when it comes to staffing. Each lawmaker gets at least two staffers year-round.

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s Capitol is one of the nation’s most beautiful, plush architectural masterpieces. And on the first and second floors, each of the state’s 49 senators gets an office staffed by at least two employees.

That’s a luxury not every state provides.

Take North Dakota, or example. Of the 141 lawmakers, only the majority and minority leaders and speakers of each house have offices and one or two staffers. All other lawmakers have to hit up the Legislative Council for help researching issues and drafting bills.

Its 32 employees comprise one of the smallest permanent legislative staffs in the nation. North Dakota lawmakers also share the services of 3.5 temporary workers to do secretarial work during sessions.

“They use their desks as their offices,” said Jim Smith, director of the Legislative Council.

By comparison, Nebraska’s legislative branch employs 233 people — it has grown 28 percent since 1979. And North Dakota lawmakers’ humble accommodations pale in comparison to the spacious, staffed offices Nebraska lawmakers use year-round. While North Dakota has no such offices to be staffed when lawmakers aren’t in session, Nebraska’s offices buzz with staffers all year long.

ON THE OUTSIDE: The Nebraska Capitol in Lincoln.

Nebraska senators can hire two staffers, a legislative aide and administrative assistant. Committee chairs can also hire an attorney and committee clerk.

Nebraska’s Legislature employs more people than Idaho’s, which has a slightly smaller population, and less than West Virginia, according to a 2009 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Other states in the region generally employ fewer legislative staffers than Nebraska, including South Dakota and Wyoming, but also have smaller populations.

According to budget documents, the legislative branch’s permanent payroll has increased from $7.8 million annually a decade ago to $9.8 million today. The total cost of running the legislative branch has increased from $13.8 million to $18 million annually during the period.

Two dozen of those legislative employees — mostly administrators — earn more than $80,000 per year.

Nebraska lawmakers take pride in their one-house Legislature and are paid a paltry $12,000 a year, among the lowest in the nation. But while the number of people hired to staff Nebraska legislative sessions has decreased since 1979, the number of permanent legislative staff increased from 182 in 1979 to 228 in 2009, according to the NCSL survey.

A 2011 study by the Goldwater Institute found states with small legislatures, little staffing, short sessions and modest lawmaker salaries tend to have more economic freedom. They ranked Nebraska 24th best in the nation in terms of legislative careerism — based on salaries, session length and staff size — but a dismal 38th in fiscal freedom.

“In general, with longer sessions and more staff, laws become longer and more complex; regulations become more detailed and difficult to follow,” the policy brief said. “A career legislature sees fit to legislate on matters that others would leave alone.”

Some Nebraska lawmakers’ offices are pretty dark during the off-season, raising the question of whether more than 100 workers are needed year-round. Staffers write legislation, research issues, field questions from constituents and run the offices.

One office whose door is often shut belongs to Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, whose aide, Brent Smoyer, is a county commissioner and is campaigning for his own seat in the Legislature.

Lautenbaugh said his staff keeps the door closed during the interim, and Smoyer went part time after being elected to the county board.

“We have saved the state money on staffing in this way,” he said via email.

According to the Legislature’s budget office, Smoyer earns $40,781 working as a .93 full-time employee, about $3,000 less than if he were full time. He also earns $38,800 per year as a county commissioner.

One of Sen. Russ Karpisek‘s staffers, legal counsel Josh Eickmeier, is also mayor of Seward, a town of 7,000 located a half-hour west of the Capitol. He earns $4,800 as mayor, on top of his annual legislative salary.

Patrick O’Donnell, clerk of the Legislature, said it’s up to the senators to manage their employees.

“We give the members pretty wide latitude,” he said. “In terms of managing them, the members are responsible for what they do or don’t do.”

Earlier this year, Nebraska Watchdog looked into allegations that some lawmakers’ staffers were engaging in campaign activities while on the taxpayers’ dime. The lawmakers in question all denied the allegation, but with lawmakers exempt from the open records law, it was nearly impossible to verify by searching phone or email records.

Sen. John Wightman, chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, on Monday sent a memo to lawmakers reminding them state law and legislative policies ban staffers from conducting campaign activities during office hours or using government resources for campaigns.

They can respond to campaign questions from the media and public and support or oppose candidates outside of work hours or “when not engaged in state legislative duties.”

“A legislative employee may not use computers, email or other resources for the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate,” the email said.

A staffer in Wightman’s office said the email was not prompted by any particular incident.

John Spatz, legal counsel for the Nebraska Association of School Boards, worked for Omaha Sen. Jim Jensen from 2000 to 2004 and said there was little down time.

Jensen’s staff was busy because he chaired a committee and was on dozens of commissions, panels and task forces, Spatz said.

The productivity of senators’ staffs varied from office to office. A senator who “isn’t terribly engaged” and doesn’t have a lot of committee work may not have as much for his staffers to do, he said.

“I’m sure some are busier than others,” he said. “In large part, it kind of depends on the senator.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of staffers up there that were busy year-round,” Spatz said. “There’s some staff up there that have made senators look really good.”

But not everybody who’s elected to the Legislature knows how to manage people, he said.

“You become a senator, you don’t expect to have to manage a staff,” Spatz said. “You just don’t know how to do that from day one.”

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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