Tax changes resisted; train crew requirements slowed

Feb. 1, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Proposals to expand sales taxes in order to reduce property taxes ran into opposition in a public hearing Thursday. And, opponents of requiring two-people on train crews continued the first legislative filibuster of the year, leading the discussion onto some interesting sidings.

Gov. Jim Pillen showed up at the Revenue Committee hearing on tax proposals to lend his support. Among the bills Pillen endorsed are proposals to extend the sales tax to pop, candy, advertising services, dry cleaning, farm equipment repair parts and business legal services. Anticipating opposition from lobbyists representing those businesses, Pillen urged senators to be courageous.

“We have to sort through the noise. We have to sort through the drama created. We have to have the courage to have a significant attitudinal change to make sure we focus on what's best for Nebraska. Every lobbying group that pounds away at us is representing ‘Me’ on their forehead – one hundred percent of the time. We have to have the courage to make sure we represent all Nebraskans,” Pillen said.

What followed was some support, and a long parade of opponents. Representatives of city and county associations supported the ideas in concept, while reserving the right to look at the details as the proposals evolve.

An example of opposition came from Rich Otto, a lobbyist representing grocers, retailers, gas stations and convenience stores, who said the proposed tax on pop and candy would be complicated and costly.” KitKats are not taxed. Altoids are. A Snickers bar would be taxable for those paying with cash or card, but it would be not taxable for those paying with SNAP. In states taxing candy in this way, a Milky Way Midnight Bar is taxed, but a regular Milky Way bar is not. Likewise the soft drink definition will hit more beverages than what we consider soda. Energy drinks and sports drinks would be included,” Otto said.

Hearings on proposed tax changes will continue Friday.

Also Thursday afternoon, the Health and Human Services Committee heard a proposal to require the state to apply for food aid for children this summer. Pillen has refused to apply, criticizing the program as a form of welfare, and saying a different summer food service program already operates at 245 sites around the state. But Sen. Jen Day said that program is inefficient in a state like Nebraska:

“Only 4.2% of students who receive free or reduced lunch during the school year still receive meals during the Summer Food Service Program. This place is Nebraska 50th nationwide. Simply put, we're not an urban state where this kind of delivery model makes much sense and it's not working here,” Day said.

The committee took no immediate action.

Thursday morning, senators continued for the second day to debate a bill to require a minimum of two crew members on trains operating on mainlines across the state. Early on the introducer, Sen. Mike Jacobson, warned people not to expect to hear much new.

“For those that are listening at home, grab a cup of coffee, settle in. We're not going to do anything today but rehash what we talked about yesterday, so just want to make sure everybody knows there won't be anything new especially happening. What we're going to do is we're going to hear a lot of the same arguments we heard yesterday because we're in a full-blown filibuster at this point, and so we will go the eight hours and then ultimately get to a cloture vote,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson appears to have support from a majority of at least 25 senators in the 49-member body. But with opponents talking to delay a vote, he will need 33 to overcome the filibuster.

Jacobson, a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, represents North Platte, a major rail hub with many union employees who support the two crew member requirement. He says it’s a matter of safety for both the public and employees.

Opponents say there is no evidence two crew member trains are safer than one, and the issue should be left up to the federal government. Many of those filibustering against the bill are also Republicans. One, Sen. Julie Slama, used the occasion to comment on filibustering, the party, and its state central committee, or SCC.

“When a Republican brings this, it's implied that the Nebraska Republican Party is somehow behind the filibuster. To be clear: the Nebraska Republican Party right now is broke, wonders why they're broke, and then pull stunts like alienate people like me, who (is a) young, conservative Republican Woman… or if you don't like the example of me… the SCC not only doesn't endorse Congressman Adrian Smith, who was a 20 year record of being one of the most conservative members of Congress… they endorsed his opponent instead because get this, he didn't fill out a questionnaire asking basically ‘What's your favorite color?’” Slama said.

The Nebraska Examiner reported the questions included “Are you an introvert or extrovert?” and “What are your hobbies?”

Slama then showed she was more than an equal opportunity partisan critic.

“Somehow we still have this many Republicans in office because the Nebraska Democratic Party is even more incompetent. Like Senator Mike McDonnell is one of the most electable Democrats in the state. And at every turn, they're censuring him for something new. Like he's, he's the one that could run for statewide office and win,” she said.

The Douglas County Democratic Party has withdrawn support for McDonnell over his support of legislation last year restricting health care for transgender youth and limiting abortion.

The state Republican Party did not immediately respond to Slama’s comments. Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb accused her of petty partisan attacks, adding “If she (Slama) really wants to help a state party out, I’m sure the Republicans would welcome her help to get them out of debt.”

Toward the end of Thursday morning’s debate, Sen. John Lowe, another opponent of the crew-size bill, took up time by reading from “The Little Engine that Could:”

In: I think I can I think I can. I think I can climb up the mountain. I think I can I think I can. Then the little blue engine began to pull. She tugged and she pulled she pulled and she tugged, puff Chug, chug, went the little engine. I think I can I think I can. I think this is Senator Jacobson's mantra today he wants to get this bill passed. I think I can,” Lowe intoned.

Whether Jacobson can surmount the 33-vote hill will be seen when the Legislature reaches the eight-hour limit before a cloture vote can be taken, Friday around noon.