A senator who has been highly critical of the Nebraska Environmental Trust Monday asked the Legislature to skip over his proposal to change it. But Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill says the issue isn’t going away.
In January, Larson introduced legislation to change operations at the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which uses lottery profits for environmental projects around the state. Larson said the Trust, with nine board members appointed by Gov. Dave Heineman and another five agency directors, is mismanaged.
In an interview on NET News’ Capitol Conversations in April, Larson reviewed his objections, adding "I think that illustrates the kind of people that governor candidates start to appoint. You know, we have to be very careful. We have one Trust Board member that is on the Nebraska Environmental Trust, but he’s also on the board of a environmentalist organization that receives a majority of the grants. So you can’t tell me there’s not a conflict of interest there," Larson said.
Monday, Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm took to the floor of the Legislature to defend the Trust and its board members. Haar said the board member Larson was referring to was James Stuart Jr. of Lincoln, who is also affiliated with Ducks Unlimited. But Haar said Larson’s description of that relationship was not true. "First of all, there’s not a board member who is members (sic) of Duck’s Unlimited, who’s a board member of Ducks Unlimited, and that that organization gets a majority of the Trust fund. All that’s false. He (Stuart) donates money to Ducks Unlimited and other environmental groups," Haar said.
Haar said Stuart asked the Accountability and Disclosure Commission whether or not he had a conflict of interest before voting on a grant to Ducks Unlimited. In a December 3, 2008 letter, the commission’s lawyer wrote Stuart "I have determined that you have no business association as defined by statute as a result of your earlier contributions to Ducks Unlimited. You may therefore participate in the grant process."
But in an interview, Larson said that didn’t settle the issue, in his eyes. "Whether or not you have Accountability and Disclosure or whoever it is saying that he can vote, it doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a conflict of interest," Larson said.
Accountability and Disclosure Commission Executive Director Frank Daley said the determination was clear in Stuart’s case. "If we are referring to the December 3, 2008 letter from this agency, it was determined that he did not have a conflict of interest," said Daley.
After Larson asked the Legislature to delay further consideration of his bill until next year, Haar wanted to engage in debate. "I would like to ask Sen. Larson a question if I could," he said. But Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, presiding over the Legislature informed Haar that Larson was excused. "Well, how convenient. Because I have some other questions for him," Haar exclaimed. Among those other questions, Haar said later, was whether Larson thought the governor should be more careful making appointments to the board.
Larson said he couldn’t debate Haar at the time because he was in a meeting. But in a later interview, Larson said "I hope the governor is more careful in the future, and future governors are very cognizant about who they appoint to these types of boards."
Larson added that he doesn’t blame Heineman, and thinks the governor does the best he can and looks into these things. Heineman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Larson noted that his bill remains alive, and said if the Trust doesn’t do a better job, it will be needed.
In other developments, Heineman signed bills easing the tax treatment of employees whose company offers a stock ownership plan, repealing the state’s alternative minimum tax and liberalizing the treatment of operating losses, and allowing increased contributions to college savings plans.
And Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said he had collected signatures from 34 of 49 state senators urging that cuts the governor made to the auditor’s office be restored. Schumacher said that puts a supermajority of senators on record favoring restoration of the cuts next year.