Rural/Urban split, coal generation’s future discussed in Unicam

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February 6th, 2015

Nebraska Capitol from the east (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Nebraska Capitol from the east (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)


 

Lincoln, NE – Senators were considering a series of minor bills Thursday morning, including one by Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk granting a sales tax exemption to certain sanitary drainage districts in his area. But suddenly, the discussion got much broader.

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Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said he supported the bill. But Harr said the same principle should apply to his city as well. “Look at us in Omaha. I know we’re not popular. We’re not the most popular people. But we are fellow citizens. And I want you to look at us and realize that there are the most vulnerable in our society — Some of the most vulnerable live in Omaha. And we’re making them pay a whole heck of a lot more for so something as basic as water. (You) Can’t survive without water.”

Harr noted there is a $2 billion, federally-mandated sewer and water improvement project going on in Omaha. The Legislature has rejected previous proposals to exempt the sales tax on consumer bills to pay for that. But Harr said everyone in the state should look out for each other.

That drew a derisive response from Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. “To stand on this floor like Sen. Harr just did and talk about ‘we help each other’ — that is nonsense. We don’t do that. There is a rural/urban split,” he said.

Sen. Lydia Brasch of rural Bancroft disagreed with Chambers. “We care about what happens in Lincoln, in Omaha, and on our farm,” she declared.

Omaha Sen. John McCollister gave an idea of how much could be at stake for Omaha taxpayers, given his rough estimate that sewer and water improvements are costing a quarter billion dollars a year. “We’re talking big money here – not for this particular bill, but if we were to exempt out sales tax for the projects in Omaha, which I estimate probably is $250 million a year, we’re talking real money. Because the revenue to the state is in the neighborhood of $13 million,” he said.

It was left to Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, chairman of Revenue Committee, to bring the focus back to the bill being debated. “I’m going to ask this body to take a deep breath,” he said. “You will notice this bill came out of the committee with no dissenting votes; with no opposition from anybody who was a testifier. The impact will be minimal. And I think during the testimony the discussion was, maybe we’re talking about a thousand dollars.”

Senators then voted 28-1 to advance the bill. But with plenty of bigger tax bills coming up in which rural and urban interests could clash, Thursday’s discussion could be a sign of more arguments to come.

Thursday afternoon, there was a public hearing on a proposal that could affect how Nebraska responds to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to reduce carbon emissions. Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion sponsored a bill that would prevent the state’s Department of Environmental Quality from developing a state plan until it prepares a report taking into account the impact on the state’s economy.

Smith said coal-fired generating plants, which could be forced out of business by the EPA regulations, are good sources of electricity. “Coal serves a significant role in the affordability and the reliability of energy in our state. Seventy two percent of Nebraska’s electricity is generated using coal. And our own public power has made great strides in investing and developing other energy sources,” he said.

However, Smith added, “Wind, natural gas, nuclear and solar are not yet to the point of providing the reliability and affordability that we have become accustomed to in our state.”

But Ken Winston of the Sierra Club countered that relying on coal is hurting Nebraska’s historically high rankings for having low electricity rates. “We’ve gone from being consistently in the top 10 of energy rates nationally to around fifteenth. And one of the other things that’s happened is that states with greater renewable energy generation have become very attractive to cutting edge industries like Facebook and Google and Microsoft, all three of which decided to locate data processing centers in the state of Iowa because of the fact they get a greater percentage of their energy from renewable sources,” Winston said.

The Natural Resources Committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Also on Thursday, a consultant hired to assess child welfare privatization in Nebraska issued its final report. It said the one private agency remaining from the state’s largely unsuccessful privatization effort, the Nebraska Families Collaborative, ought to remain in business in the Omaha area. But it said that should be only on the condition of major court reforms that would shift away from the prosecution of parents in troubled families, toward supporting those families.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said he has legislation to move in that direction that would create a pilot family court program in Douglas County.

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