LINCOLN – State Sen. Ken Schilz suggested during legislative floor debate last week that building more wind turbines on the rural landscape could help lighten the property tax load in Nebraska.
As it turns out, what’s good for tax relief also could be good for the Ogallala senator.
Schilz, who is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said Monday that he has worked since late last year as a contractor for Bluestem Energy Solutions, an Omaha-based renewable energy company. The senator is being compensated to do business development for Bluestem, which he disclosed in early March to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
In conflict of interest paperwork, Schilz made it clear that he would vote on wind-energy legislation that came before the Legislature. And he has supported such bills, including one that promises to trigger a fight with wind-energy opponents during floor debate this week.
Attorneys serve on the Judiciary Committee and farmers fill seats on the Agriculture Committee. Schilz argued that his situation is comparable and that he has complied with the law.
“We’re allowed to work, even if it conflicts with what’s going on in the Legislature, as long as we disclosed it,” Schilz said.
State law does not dictate to lawmakers that they must abstain from votes related to their business or professional interests. The decision is up to each senator, as long as the potential conflict is disclosed, said Frank Daley, director of the sunlight commission.
Executive branch elected officials also must make similar disclosures, but the commission provides guidance to them on how to navigate the conflict, Daley explained.
“We don’t have very strong laws that cover conflicts of interest,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman with Common Cause Nebraska, a group that advocates for open government.
Schilz is prevented from returning to the Legislature next year because of term limits. A farmer and cattle producer when he was elected eight years ago, Schilz said he is mostly out of the beef business and his brother handles most of the farming responsibilities.
He has supported wind energy through his legislative career, and he saw it as an opportunity for when his days as a lawmaker draw to a close at the end of the year.
“I have to figure out something to do, and what’s wrong with that?” he asked.
It’s not unheard of for former senators to return to the rotunda as lobbyists. When asked if his position involved lobbying, Schilz said he presents and explains potential projects to local elected officials.
He is paid $1,500 for each project proposal that makes it to the analysis stage. If a project gets built, he would earn a fee of $3,000 per megawatt hour generated by the wind farm. So far, Schilz said he has gotten one project in western Nebraska to the analysis stage.
This year Schilz introduced a bill that would allow counties to seek a designation as “wind energy friendly.” The proposal, which did not advance out of his committee, was introduced in response to a decision last year by Lancaster County elected officials to place tough noise restrictions on wind towers.
Schilz also gave a committee priority designation to a bill that proposes removing state regulations that developers say make Nebraska less competitive for wind farms. But the committee deadlocked 4-4 on that bill, meaning it did not advance to the floor. Without a priority designation, it’s highly unlikely that a bill will be debated on the floor.
Recently Sen. John McCollister of Omaha announced that he will attempt to amend the language in the wind bill onto another proposal dealing with the state Power Review Board. Sens. Curt Friesen of Henderson and Dave Schnoor of Scribner, who both voted against the bill in committee, said they will fight the attempt to pull it out.
Schilz said he supports McCollister’s attempt to pass the wind amendment because it’s a good policy that would help rural areas with economic development.
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