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The 2015 session has reached the halfway point, and soon we will be spending full days on the legislative floor debating and voting on the many bills introduced this year. For the first half of the session, we have split our days with floor debate in the morning followed by committee hearings in the afternoon. As required by the Nebraska Constitution, public hearings are held on each bill introduced. This year, 663 proposals were brought forth.
While not all 663 bills are advanced from the committee for consideration by the full Legislature, hundreds are deemed worthy of extended discussion. Given that there are only 90 days in the session, the time constraints make it impossible for the Legislature to take up every measure. In order to assure the most important issues are debated, senators are allowed to designate one bill as a priority. This session, three of my bills have been designated as priorities.
I am grateful Senator Curt Friesen of Henderson has prioritized LB 610, which is a bill I introduced that would provide much-needed funding to our transportation infrastructure. The bill would increase the portion of our gas tax that goes to fund our state, city, and county roads and bridges. While I consider myself a fiscal conservative, I have firsthand knowledge (as Chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee) of our immense infrastructure needs and the huge funding gap that exists.
Roads and bridges are the lifeblood of Nebraska. Businesses and industries, including agriculture, recognize a well-maintained infrastructure is needed to move produce from farm to market; to transport freight and product; and to move passengers and employees. In addition, good roads provide incentive for businesses to expand and locate in Nebraska. This infrastructure is vital for emergency services and national security and is a basic necessity for our everyday life. That said, functional roads and bridges are neither free nor cheap.
Consider this: in order to just maintain the nearly 100,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges, it costs almost a billion dollars every year. Because our aging bridges across the state have been neglected for so long, Nebraska has the seventh highest percentage of structurally deficient rural bridges in the nation. It is estimated it will cost over $800 million to bring our bridges up to safety standards.
Yet while we have these growing costs, funding for these necessities has not kept up. The federal Highway Trust Fund is declining and losing its value, gas prices have dropped, and cars are becoming more efficient. The state’s current tax on fuel, 25.6 cents, has increased by only one cent in the past 22 years. Neighboring states are in a similar bind – Iowa has just increased its gas tax by 10 cents per gallon and South Dakota raised its tax by 6 cents.
LB 610 takes a very modest and responsible approach. The tax would increase by 1.5 cents every year for just four years for a total of 6 cents. As far as taxes go, the gas tax is probably the most fair because it is based on usage. Those who utilize the roads more will pay more, including those non-Nebraskans traveling through out state.
But not all taxes in Nebraska are fair. As I mentioned in my previous post, I introduced LB 357 to address our excessively high personal and business income taxes. Nebraska has one of the highest top income tax rates compared to our neighbors, putting us at an economic disadvantage for attracting businesses and individuals to fill new jobs. LB 357 would lower the tax brackets over a period of eight years, protecting vital state services while putting funds back in the hands of taxpayers. In addition, LB 357 would provide property tax relief by increasing the amount of money that goes into the Property Tax Credit Fund.
I believe in an overall tax policy that adequately provides for essential government services but does not unfairly burden our businesses and families. For that reason, I have selected LB 357 as my personal priority for this year. LB 357 and LB 610 together make a sound tax policy that will move this state forward for years to come.