Gas tax hike one step closer; term limits loosening rejected
By Fred Knapp , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
April 13, 2015, 6:03 a.m. ·
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The Nebraska Legislature gave second-round approval to a six-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase Monday, leaving one more round of voting needed before the measure would be sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts. And lawmakers turned back an attempt to ask voters to loosen term limits.
Debate on the proposed gas tax increase pitted senators who said it’s needed to repair roads and bridges against those who said it’s a tax increase at a time when Nebraskans need tax relief.
Leading the charge for the increase was Sen. Jim Smith, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Smith cited a huge backlog of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges in the state, and noted uncertainty about future federal roads funding. "It’s a perfect storm. And we have to address this. And we have an opportunity to address it the right way with this user fee gas tax, or we’re going to be coming back year after year and dipping into the general funds to try to find money to meet these needs," Smith said.
Sen. Galen Hadley sought to counter the argument that Nebraskans oppose any tax increase. "The idea that Nebraskans do not want to raise taxes I think needs to be couched in terms of ‘increased taxes for what?’ If you go to people and say ‘Just give me the money, I will do what I can,’ they’ll say ‘no.’ You go to them and say ‘I will use the money for repairing the structurally deficient bridges in the state,’ I think they would say ‘yes,’" Hadley said.
But Sen. Beau McCoy said there is no assurance in the bill that the money, which would be split between the state, the county, and the cities, would go to repair bridges. This bill does not require the state -- the Department of Roads – to address the bridge situation. This bill does not require 93 counties across the state to address the bridge situation. There is nothing of the kind in this bill," he said.
And Sen. Lydia Brasch said the bill would work a hardship on low-income Nebraskans. She talked about being in line behind a woman in a gas station. "She said ‘Five dollars, please.’ This woman needed five dollars of gas. That’s all she needed. And I looked and I had a $20 bill just in my pocket. I laid it on the counter. I thought I was going to pay forward and just give $20 of gas once in a while. But when the lady ran the card she said ‘Ma’am, there is no money on this card. And the woman looked at me and that $20 bill and she broke out crying. She said ‘You just bought gas to take my daughter to school.’ There are people where every dollar count(s)," Brasch said.
Before reaching a second-round vote on the bill, senators rejected an amendment that would have cut the 6 cent increase to 2.8 cents and restricted it to counties and cities.
The vote to advance the gas tax increase was 27-14, with eight senators either absent or not voting. It would take 30 votes to override a veto by Ricketts, who opposes a gas tax increase.
Also Monday, lawmakers rejected an attempt to ask voters again to reduce the restrictions of term limits they approved 15 years ago. Two weeks ago, senators give initial approval to asking voters to loosen the limits from two four-year terms to three.
Monday, Sen. Paul Schumacher asked them to return to his original idea of allowing two six-year terms. "I would submit that the three four-year terms are something that the voters have already had the opportunity to pass on and have rejected and done so fairly recently. However, two six-year terms are something that are consistent with the past actions of the voters saying ‘Two terms is enough.’ And the two six-year terms would allow future members of the Legislature to have sufficient experience in their final six years to deal with some of the complex issues that we deal with," he said.
Schumacher was referring to voters’ rejection of a proposal for three four-year terms contained in a ballot issue in 2012.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte mocked the notion that Schumacher’s proposal was consistent with the will of the voters. "Simple math quiz for you: Three times four is what? Twelve years. People in Nebraska rejected that. Two times six is what? Twelve years. They rejected that in 2012. They do not want us in here for 12 years," he said.
Senators agreed to an amendment that put the proposal in the form Schumacher wanted, for two six-year terms. But they then rejected the entire proposal, with 20 senators voting for it, and 22 opposed.
And, Gov. Pete Ricketts issued the first veto of his governorship in unusual circumstances. It came on a bill by Sen. Hadley to require the registration of all-terrain and utility type vehicles. Hadley actually requested the veto, explaining that he intended the requirement to apply only to vehicles purchased in the future. But the bill as passed would have also applied retroactively. Because of that, and to accommodate Hadley’s request, Ricketts said he vetoed the bill.
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