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OPINION: Amendment 1

Vote to ensure integrity in Nebraska elections

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Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 3:00 am

In Sunday’s editorial we pointed out some vexing dissimilarities in the way the state’s political establishment is treating Omaha state Sen. Brenda Council, who recently was convicted of two misdemeanors after using more than $63,000 in campaign funds to gamble in casinos, and former University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert, who was fined and later impeached by the Legislature for filing a false campaign report.

Although Council repaid only $36,000 to her campaign account, she was charged with misdemeanors, which allows her to continue to campaign for re-election. The offenses she admitted were non-felony versions of the same violation that tripped up Hergert: gaming the state’s financial disclosure laws. We meant to point out the inconsistent and hypocritical response to Council’s offense rather than diminish that of Hergert, who ran into further troubles with the law after he left office. We had no idea about the story that would be running the same day in the Omaha World-Herald.

It seems that in addition to her gambling troubles, Council fell four years behind in paying her property taxes. Douglas County Treasurer’s Office records showed that she and her husband made no property tax payments for 2008, 2009, 2010 or 2011 on their principal residence, and were delinquent paying taxes on four other properties. They wrote the county a check Friday for some of what they owe, after the newspaper began asking questions. According to the IRS, she also owes more than $50,000 to Uncle Sam.

Other than to note that elected officials ought to uphold the policies and principles that they profess, especially when it comes to paying their fair share of the tax burden, we’ll leave it to voters in Council’s district to decide what comes next. If you want to know what you can do about the next time a state official dances around our election laws, vote for Amendment 1 in November.

Because of a loophole in the Nebraska Constitution, an elected state official can be impeached for breaking the law while holding public office. The only risk you run for breaking the law during a campaign is getting noticed by voters who are paying sufficient attention and who care about the ethical standards of the people they elect. That sets the bar pretty low. The amendment would change the state’s constitution to fix that obvious shortcoming.

The Nebraska Constitution currently says that state officials are subject to impeachment for “any misdemeanor in office.” Again, the trail in the case leads back to Hergert. He signed a false campaign report after he was in office. If he’d signed it before being sworn in, he’d have been off the hook. That led to discussion of how to address the problem, and to this year’s proposed remedy. Lawmakers voted 45-0 to put the amendment before voters.

That doesn’t mean the Legislature will be able to overrule the will of the voters and oust a state senator for merely getting a traffic ticket. It does mean that lawmakers would have to take it seriously when one of their own commits “acts that by their nature or consequence are subversive of some fundamental or essential principle of government or highly prejudicial to the public interest.”

It would still require some adherence to principle — and, you’d hope, some guts — to hold a popular urban Democrat like Council to the same standards that applied when the Legislature went after a rural Republican like Hergert, who was only the second state official in history to lose his office in that fashion.

There’s no guarantee they’d ever do it, but without Amendment 1 the option remains off the table.

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