Politics aplenty in Legislature’s tax debate

Politics aplenty in Legislature’s tax debate

Let’s make one thing clear: the Nebraska Legislature hasn’t even started debating what changes to make in the state’s tax system. They’re just talking about a study of the tax system right now.

 But already, politics is creeping into the discussion of LB 613, the bill to authorize the study.

 To wit:

 – Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas introduced the annual bill to provide a sales tax exemption on ag machinery repair parts, a proposal that gets shot down year after year. She didn’t expect it to advance. But, in a major surprise, it did.

 So now Dubas is in the awkward position of pushing a bill (since prioritized by North Platte Sen. Tom Hansen) that will compete for dollars with her own priority bill, one that will increase reimbursements for foster parents. 

By March 19, 2013 Comments Read More
The looming obesity crisis

The looming obesity crisis

A couple of senators committed pop comedy Friday during the Revenue Committee’s hearing on a proposal to end the sales tax exemption on soft drinks.

As Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery introduced LB 447, Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte noted his colleague’s voice sounded a little raspy and suggested Avery might need something to wet his whistle. Hansen reached under the table and produced a half-empty, two-liter bottle of root beer.

Later, Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont excused himself from the hearing, came back in a few minutes and loudly cracked open a can of pop while someone was testifying against the bill. Both gags got some laughter.

But beneath the effervescence lurked some heavy statistics about obesity in Nebraska.

Dr. Adi Pour, health director for Douglas County, testified that 28 percent of Nebraska adults are obese. The percentage is closer to one-third for youth in Douglas County. Unless our waistlines stop expanding, nearly six in 10 of us will be clinically obese by 2030.

Given links between excessive weight and heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancer, the issue isn’t so easy to laugh off.

A recent analysis by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts Nebraska will spend $3.35 billion annually on weight-related health problems if the obesity rate continues to climb as projected.  But if Nebraskans could reduce their body mass index (BMI) by just 5-percent, the state could save close to $3.7 billion in the next 20 years.

By March 18, 2013 Comments Read More
Kearney Arch seemed doomed from the start

Kearney Arch seemed doomed from the start

The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument

 On a hot August night back in 1999, I can recall standing on Interstate 80 — which had been closed to traffic — as the 1,500-ton Great Platte River Road Archway Monument was hauled into place atop massive, bulldozer-like crawler machines.

 It was a spectacle to be sure. Dignitaries from across the state gathered as the $60 million Arch was slowly crawled across the four-lane interstate. Beverages were served, cannons were fired, and yearly attendance of 1 million was predicted.

 This hunk of steel and prairie trail history, it was said, would finally realize a long-time dream of the state: to lure travelors off I-80 to stop, shop and stay a spell in Nebraska. Finally, we Cornhuskers would have an attraction we could boast about, like Mt. Rushmore or the Rocky Mountains.

 But I remember thinking this was a lot of trouble, and expense, just to place a museum over the Interstate. I wondered quietly what could be accomplished if millions weren’t wasted on locating this steel, fort-like structure above the Interstate.

By March 11, 2013 Comments Read More
Of older drivers and cognitive tests

Of older drivers and cognitive tests

Judging by the letters sent to The World-Herald’s Public Pulse, a bill that proposed cognitive testing for drivers 80 and older raised more than a few blood pressure readings in Nebraska. Read our coverage of the public hearing on LB 351 here.

Those opposed to the bill will be glad to know it’s not going anywhere this session. During the hearing, Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms said he would support an interim study on the measure. While a study resolution has not yet been introduced, Sen. Annette Dubas, chairwoman of the Transporation and Telecommunications Committee, said recently that’s probably where the bill is headed.

When to stop driving is one of those thorny issues with which lawmakers often struggle. On one hand, the traffic safety issue clearly enters the realm of public policy. On the other hand, the ability to drive is closely tied to a person’s independence and most of us like to think we’ll know when it’s time to hang up the keys.

Those opposed to the bill were louder than supporters. But with each story we published, I was contacted by readers who hoped the bill would gain traction. They told of older loved ones unwilling to stop driving when they were no longer capable. In one case, a reader (unwilling to be identified) said his 80-year-old-plus mother even refused to stop after being warned by a police officer. Not long after, she caused an injury accident.

Some suggeted all drivers, regardless of age, should undergo cognitive tests. Others say the decision should be made by a driver’s doc. Maybe so.

But whether a solution can be found by requiring tests at the office of the DMV or the family MD will have wait for another session.



By March 8, 2013 Comments Read More
Who says hearing testimony doesn’t matter?

Who says hearing testimony doesn’t matter?

While public testimony against a bill doesn’t immediately sway a sponsoring senator every day, Tuesday was one of those days in the Judiciary Committee.

The hearing involved LB 520, a bill that would allow registered land surveyors to step onto private property — without the landowner’s permission — to carry out their professional duties. It was introduced by Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial.

While several surveyors testified in support, the bill touched a nerve with private property advocates. Opponents kept coming up to the mic, telling committee members how the measure represented an affront to the rights of citizens to control who enters — or doesn’t enter — their land. At the conclusion of a litany of opposition, Christensen, a Judiciary Committee member, made a brief closing statment on his proposal.

“I will motion to kill the bill myself in exec,” he said, referring to executive session, the closed-door discussions committee members have to decide the fates of bills assigned to them.

His announcement triggered applause from opponents.

“Normally, we don’t allow applause or emotional outbursts,” said Sen. Brad Ashford, the committee chairman.

“But today, we’ll make an exception,” he added with a smile, realizing his warning came a little late.

By March 5, 2013 Comments Read More
Is Gov. Heineman more serious about U.S. Senate run?

Is Gov. Heineman more serious about U.S. Senate run?

 Guessing what Gov. Dave Heineman will do is a dangerous game.

 He’s an unpreditable guy, as evidenced by his recent selection of Lavon Heidemann as lieutentant governor. No one saw that coming.

  And remember when he shocked everyone by calling for a special legislative session on the Keystone XL pipeline?

 There are other examples. Overall, it’s safe to say that Heineman, a former Army ranger, plays his cards very close to the vest before he plays them.

 But there’s some indications out there that he might seriously be looking at running for the U.S. Senate. At very least, he’s looking more seriously than he did two years ago.

 Back then, when U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., decided to retire, the Senate seat was Heineman’s to take. But the governor decided to pass in 2012, partly because he doesn’t like Washington, D.C., partly because he prefers being a leader to a legislator, and partly because he had more work to do as governor. His decision, of course, opened the way to the surprise election of former State Sen. Deb Fischer.

 Now, with the pending retirement of U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., Heineman is taking another look, and maybe a more serious look. And there’s reasons to take a more serious look.

 Heineman, 64, has two years left to serve as governor. So the clock is ticking. It’s no fun being a lame duck, and, by all appearances, he’s going to have a hard time getting major initiatives through a more and more independent State Legislature. Look at what happened to his bold tax reform plan this year. It was turned into a study.

 What is the governor going to do when he leaves the Mansion? That’s a good question. The rumor mill has been passing around talk for several months that he might become president of the University of Nebraska. But J.B. Milliken already holds that job, and there’s no public indication that he’s going anywhere. So there’s no solid post-governor plan for the governor.

 Now, we hear that the governor grew frustrated with the current tone of things in Washington during a recent visit there for the National Governor’s Association meeting. And there’s a lot of talk about the need for a Republican resurgence, after failing to win the White House last fall.

 Two years ago, Heineman was a long shot to run for Senate. He may not be this time.






By March 4, 2013 Comments Read More
Tax study facing complications; new wind for wind bills

Tax study facing complications; new wind for wind bills

 Most people figured the death of Gov. Dave Heineman’s tax-reform proposals meant a little breathing room, until next year, on the matter.


 Wednesday, the Legislature’s Executive Board had a bunch of concerns and suggested changes for the proposal tax study that rose from the ashes of the governor’s bills.

 And then later in the day, the Legislature’s “defender of the downtrodden,” Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, pledged to fight and filibuster any tax reform ideas, thus forcing support of 33 of the Unicameral’s 49 lawmakers to get anything passed.

 Leading the charge in the Exec Board discussion of the proposed tax study, Legislative Bill 613, was Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat who is looking hard at running for the job now held by Heineman, a Republican.

 Lathrop (as well as other senators on the committee) voiced concerns about including members of the Heineman Administration as ex-officio members of the tax study. Only state senators should be part of the study and not, for instance, the state tax administrator.

  The governor, Lathrop said, has “again” left the Legislature with a mess

By February 27, 2013 Comments Read More
Democracy sale in Nebraska: 33-percent off!

Democracy sale in Nebraska: 33-percent off!

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus frequently does practical math in public hearings and floor debates to back up his policy positions.

He did it again Monday as the Legislature debated a bill intended to bring more uniformity to the fees governmental agencies charge to provide open records to the public. Our story about the debate is here. As proposed, Legislative Bill 363 would have required records custodians to charge no fees for the first six hours of staff time spent responding to a request.

Several rural senators objected to the six-hour free pass, arguing it could put a financial burden on budget-strapped (and staff-strapped) county offices.

Schumacher, who supports the bill, put a pencil to paper and came up with the following calculation:

By February 26, 2013 Comments Read More
Governor’s tax ideas die, but might live another day

Governor’s tax ideas die, but might live another day

 Gov. Dave Heineman’s two tax reform bills will die a quiet death on Wednesday afternoon.

 The governor rightly read the tea leaves and asked over the weekend that they be removed from discussion. The bills were going to die anyway.

 But what lives on is a real, and a real serious, discussion about reforming the state’s tax system.

 It’s not a total defeat for the Republican governor — a retreat of major proportions, yes — but not a total defeat. He started a debate, and just might get some tax changes he likes, after a committee of state lawmakers studies taxes over the next nine months and offers suggestions for changes.

  But indications are the conversation is headed for some changes the governor didn’t support when he first unveiled his hard-charging agenda to eliminate all state income taxes. Look for lots of talk

By February 20, 2013 Comments Read More
A quick score card on 2014 governor’s race

A quick score card on 2014 governor’s race

So much for a sleepy news cycle on President’s Day.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns woke everyone up with his surprise announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2014. Of course, that set tongues to wagging and Twitterers to tweeting with lots speculation about the impact on Nebraska’s political landscape.

This much we know for sure:

  • Gov. Dave Heineman said  he will think about running for Johanns’ seat. Here’s what he told The World-Herald’s political reporter, Robynn Tysver. If he does get in, it at least raises the question about whether he might leave the mansion early to focus on a campaign.
  • State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont officially announced Monday he’s running as a GOP candidate for governor.
  • University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln said Monday he’s not going to run for governor.  The Republican was considered a strong contender, in part, because of his friendship with Heineman.

And for some maybes:

  • Nebraska State Treasurer Don Stenberg, a Republican, recently cracked open the door to a gubernatorial bid. As a past candidate for Senate, you can’t rule out the possibility that he’ll give that race a look, too.
  • Other GOP names bandied about: Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley, Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy, former Bayard Sen. Phil Erdmann.
  • What about Lavon Heidemann, appointed as Lieutenant Governor just last week? The governor said he would only appoint someone for the job who wasn’t interested in running for governor, so as to not unfairly handicap the race so close to the election. What if the governor leaves early to run for Senate? Are all bets — and political agreements — off?
  • Republican Attorney General Jon Bruning said in January he’s happy with his current job. But a lot has changed since then. Most think he’s thinking about it.
  • Some Democratic names bandied about: Former NU Regent Chuck Hassebrook and Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop are said to be giving the race serious consideration. Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler (a former state senator) and Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton also are mentioned.



By February 18, 2013 Comments Read More