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The Ethics Gap: Addressing conflicts of interest in legislature
Should Nebraska's state senators be allowed to vote on bills if they have a conflict of interest? It's one of the big issues lawmakers are debating during this session.
They're looking at revising a current bill that deals with senators and the issues of conflict of interest.
News 5's Josh Egbert spoke with members of the legislature in our special report: The Ethics Gap.
39 states have banned some lawmakers from voting on issues where they have a personal or financial conflict of interest.
Here in Nebraska, that's not the case. Legislators are required to file a conflict of interest statement with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure commission, but the commission doesn't analyze the statement, just keeps it on file.
But a bill, that has a lot of senators divided, could change that.
It's a concept that is used by states, cities, and counties. If officials have a conflict of interest on an issue they shouldn't vote. But that's not the case for Nebraska lawmakers.
"We have laws or rules in our procedures that deal with it, we just don't have any rules that says you cannot vote when you have a direct conflict," said Senator Bill Avery.
A recent investigation by Nebraska Watchdog found more than two dozen possible conflicts of interest in the last two years.
"Sometimes it can be difficult in a situation to determine whether you do or you don't have a conflict of interest, sometimes it takes some expertise and analysis to figure that out and untangle that," said Frank Daley, NADC.
That could all change. Senator Bill Avery has introduced a bill that would tighten the conflict question - tighten it, but not end it.
"I wanted to have a better definition of what a conflict was," Senator Avery said.
Sen. Flood-"I think what senator Avery is trying to do is to encourage the dialogue between members of the legislature and the actual decision makers as it relates to whether there's a conflict or not."
Under the bill, lawmakers must submit a conflict of interest statement with the Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
"It requires the commission to at least analyze those conflict of interest statements filed by members of the legislature for the purpose of determining whether they do or do not have a potential conflict of interest," Daley said.
But not everyone supports the bill.
"When you bring up issues like this, there is a natural tendency for senators to think, I'm being accused of something," said Senator Avery.
"I think what Senator Avery proposed is a reasonable step and I think it merits passive, but it's early in the session, we have more work to do," said Senator Mike Flood.
The bill was heard in the Government Affairs Committee in January.
Avery says five votes were needed to send the bill to the floor.
He says the Government Committee vote was 3-3 with two senators not voting.
Speaker Flood and Senator Avery will continue to work on the bill while still in committee.
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