Gas tax hike, more state power in livestock decisions debated

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April 1st, 2015

Nebraska Capitol Rotunda late Tuesday afternoon (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Nebraska Capitol Rotunda late Tuesday afternoon (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Proposals to raise Nebraska’s gas tax by 6 cents a gallon, and to have the state, not counties, approve large livestock operations, were debated but not decided Tuesday in the Legislature.


 

Lincoln, NE – Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, is leading the push to increase gas taxes. As debate began on the proposal Tuesday, Smith listed some of the needs for the money it would raise. “One in four rural bridges are functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. One in four, collegues. One in four rural bridges. One in ten state bridges are functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. And the note that we have, the cost to get those up to speed, is well over $800 million. And if we’re already barely keeping up, where’s that money going to come from?” Smith asked.

Smith also mentioned backlogs in the repair and maintenance of roads, and delays in the construction of long-planned expressways. Estimates of all those needs run into the billions; Smith’s bill would raise in the range of $70 to $80 million a year when fully implemented in four years.

That was too much for Sen. Bill Kintner, also of Papillion. Kintner, in his third year in the Legislature, said senators have not cut tax rates during his time in office. “Can you imagine going three years and telling the overtaxed people of our state ‘Sorry, we just can’t cut your taxes.’ And then, to pour a little salt in the wound, we’re going to raise your taxes. That’s exactly the wrong way to go, and this is the wrong time to do this. If we’re going to raise this tax, we have to cut some tax over here. And we’re not doing that,” Kintner said.

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said senators have taken actions to hold down taxes, including last year’s decision to index income tax brackets so future inflation doesn’t effectively raise taxes. But Kintner said tax rates have not decreased.

As debate continued, there were some unusual alignments. Some senators who traditionally favor tax cuts spoke in favor of the gas tax increase, and others who often favor expanded government services opposed it.

Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook said she’s torn. “I have not yet made a decision about my vote. It would be impactful. I do know people that collect money out of their children’s penny jars and dollars here and there to put fuel in their cars. Unfortunately they’re not driving fuel efficient cars either,” Cook said.

States’ revenues from gas taxes have declined as cars have gotten more efficient, and there’s uncertainty about future federal roads funding from a polarized Congress. In the meantime, about a dozen states have raised gas taxes recently, including Iowa, which increased them 10 cents a gallon. Lawmakers adjourned for the day without reaching a first-round vote; debate is expected to resume Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Tuesday morning lawmakers locked horns over a bill to give the state increased authority over permits issued to large livestock projects like confined feeding operations. Those operations often stir local opposition based on concerns about odors or damage to roads and the environment.

Currently counties have the ability to deny permits. Originally Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse wanted counties to conform to statewide standards to be developed by the state Department of Agriculture to make those decisions. Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said Nebraska needs to assure potential investors that there’s a uniform set of rules. “Whether we like it or not, the perception out there, if you go to other states and other places, the perception out there is Nebraska’s a tough place to do business,” Schilz said.

But Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, himself a cattle feeder, said Nebraska’s livestock industry is growing even with the counties in charge of decisionmaking. “I certainly am in favor of all local control, and take issue with any attempt to remove that local control and take it to the state,” Kuehn said.

A proposed amendment would make it voluntary for counties to follow state standards, but even that wasn’t enough to mollify some opponents. Senators moved on to the gas tax debate before reaching a first round vote, but are expected to return to the issue.

And in other news from the Capitol, the start of Tuesday afternoon’s legislative session was delayed for an hour after an unattended briefcase in a hallway near the legislative chamber triggered a bomb scare. Nearby offices were cleared and Capitol staff members kept onlookers away from the area. The Associated Press reported Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said the package was left by high school student who was participating in an educational program at the Capitol. A search of the briefcase found no hazardous devices or materials.

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