Tougher penalties for driving violations discussed; inheritance tax debated

Feb. 27, 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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Fines and penalties would increase for distracted driving that resulted in someone dying, under a proposal heard Tuesday by a legislative committee. And lawmakers continued to debate abolishing the state’s inheritance tax.

Currently, if a driver kills someone, but the death was unintentional, that driver can be charged with a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine. LB1340, introduced by Sen. Kathleen Kauth, would increase that to a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, or up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine if the person was texting while driving. The bill would also increase fines for speeding -- for example, for driving more than 35 miles per hour above the speed limit, the fine would go from $300 to $400. Kauth said the changes are needed to make the roads safer.

“The goal is to increase penalties so that we can make people take more responsibility when they're driving, so that we can make them understand that if you drive distracted, if you are speeding, if you're speeding in excess of 35 miles per hour, that is a serious, significant issue. And we need to make sure that the penalties actually do some good, because right now the penalties are not enough to make people take that second thought and drive better,” she said.

Kim Latacha was among those supporting the bill during a legislative hearing. Latacha said her husband Matthew was killed last year while he was bicycling, but the driver was charged with only a misdemeanor.

“Matthew was a wonderful human being, devoted husband, dedicated father, community healer, innovative and beloved physician. I've lost my husband, my best friend, my life partner. My kids have lost their amazing dad. The state has lost a tremendous physician. I think his life was worth more than $1,000,” she said.

Spike Eikholt, a lobbyist for ACLU Nebraska and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys, opposed the bill. Eikholt said those organizations think penalties should reflect what’s known in the law mens rea, or criminal intent.

“It's our position that criminal law should be proportionate to the mens rea and to the acts that people do. I understand that (for) the loss to victims and their families (it) doesn't matter whether it's intentional or unintentional, negligent, knowing -- that doesn't matter. The loss was horrible. I'm not trying to trivialize that,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Also Tuesday, lawmakers continued to debate a proposal to eliminate the state’s inheritance tax. That’s a tax that’s imposed on people who inherit money from someone who dies. If the person who inherits is a son or daughter of the person who dies, the first $100,000 is exempt from tax. Anything above that is taxed at 1 percent. Nieces and nephews are taxed at 11 percent on amounts over $40,000. And non-relatives are taxed 15 percent on amounts over $25,000.

The money goes to county governments. They oppose eliminating the tax, saying it could force them to raise property taxes on everyone else. But Sen. Steve Erdman, a former Morrill County Commissioner, supported the abolition proposed in LB1067.

“I stand in support of 1067. I've always been of that opinion, even when I was a county commissioner… We should have taken inheritance tax from these counties when they got the COVID money -- the ARPA money. That's when we should have taken it,” Erdman said.

Sen. Mike Moser said that as taxes go, he thinks inheritance taxes are less onerous than others.

“A one to three percent tax on property that changes hands at the occasion of somebody's death through their will, or even to… unrelated heirs (at a tax rate) in the teens, is still relatively painless compared to what a lot of taxation is,” Moser said.

Sen. John Cavanaugh said taking away a revenue source from the counties would make more sense if the state also took away some of their responsibilities. Cavanaugh used his home county as an example.

“One of the big functions of Douglas County is our courthouse, our criminal justice system, our sheriff's department, and our Douglas County corrections facility. If Douglas County didn't have to bear the burden of the expense of prosecuting, arresting and housing people who are being held on state offenses, then I would imagine Douglas County could substantially reduce their property taxes. So if we want to talk about property tax relief, we should be talking about ways for the state to pick up the tab on more of these functions that the state requires the counties to undertake,” he said.

Sen. Rob Clements, who introduced the proposal and made it his priority, defended it as a matter of fairness for the relatively few Nebraskans who pay the tax in an average year.

“We got a million eight (hundred thousand) population here that's using all the county services. And we have 12,000 people per year that are using a few but not nearly what everybody else is getting to use. And so that's why I think it's important for those of us who are using county services to pay for them and not put it on other people. It's a redistribution of wealth situation,” Clements said.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without a reaching a vote on the bill. Debate is expected to stretch into Thursday before a vote is taken.