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Last week we started discussion on LB 106, introduced by Sen. Dan Watermeier. LB 106 is the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act. As introduced, the bill would provide for the Department of Agriculture to develop a matrix for counties to use when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operating siting permit. If the permit is denied, the applicant could appeal to a siting review board and eventually to the district court. The purpose of this bill was to create a uniform method among counties for siting new livestock facilities in Nebraska. Although we have grown the cattle on feed numbers in this state, we are losing the number of hogs we feed. Packing plants are looking at investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrading current processing plants, and with declining hog numbers, they are forced to import hogs for slaughter. If this continues they will close plants and move to where the hogs are located.
I’ve had a number of phone calls and emails offering their opinion on both sides of this issue. And truthfully, if an amendment introduced by Sen. Watermeier would not have been adopted, I wouldn’t have supported the bill. His amendment allows counties to decide on the matrix and thus, local control will prevail. In the end we moved LB106 forward and all that remains is a requirement that the department of Agriculture will develop a matrix developed with scientific methodology and peer reviewed that will be offered for counties to use in their livestock permitting process. The amended bill lacks the uniformity that would have been provided by the original bill, but now it will be up to individual counties on whether they want to use the matrix or not.
Agricultural groups, including myself, have supported LB 106 with the hopes of increasing economic development by encouraging new and expanded livestock operations. Currently the difficulties in siting a facility prevent some from even trying. Hopefully this will at least provide some guidance for those willing to expand livestock production in this state.
A bill I designated as my priority bill and talked about in an earlier newsletter, LB 610, was also debated last week. This bill will increase the fixed gas tax rate by 1.5 cents every year for four years. Of the two components of the fixed rate, the portion allocated to the Nebraska Department of Roads will increase ½ cent every year, from 7.5 cents to 9.5 cents. The portion that is allocated to cities and counties will increase one cent every year from 2.8 cents to 6.8 cents. Beginning January 2019, the total fixed motor fuels tax rate would be 16.3 cents per gallon. By the fourth year this will provide $25.4 million for use by the Department of Roads and $50.8 million for use by counties and cities for road maintenance and bridge repairs. The county and city share would go into the Highway Allocation Fund which is divided evenly between counties and cities. The county share is then distributed to individual counties based upon a formula that includes population, lineal feet of bridges, motor vehicle registrations, miles of county roads, and the value of farm products.
I still feel that our roads and bridges should be funded with fuel taxes. A user fee. Once again, I will mention that the bridges in this state are in bad shape. There are 11,700 bridges 20 feet or longer that are maintained by counties and cities and 20% of those bridges are deficient. For those communities that are not located on the interstate system, our two-lane roads need to be well maintained if those communities are able to grow. I feel that one of the primary duties of the state is to develop and maintain our infrastructure so all areas of the state have access to markets nationwide. In the last 22 years our gas tax has only increased by 1 cent. It’s time to catch up on our road and bridge maintenance funding needs.
The cost of repairing a vehicle, such as replacing tires or shocks, because of the poor condition of our roads, will cost a person far more than would the increase in gas taxes if LB 610 were passed. For instance, under the provisions of the bill, if a person drives an average of 15,000 miles a year, at 30 miles per gallon, your tax increase would be $7.50. A far cry from the cost of a new tire. Traveling only a few miles out of your way to avoid a bad road or low capacity bridge costs dollars and time which reduce our productivity and increase our cost of getting our products to market. Amendments may be coming that would direct a larger portion of the money raised to counties as they, unlike cities, only have access to property taxes to fund county roads. And if that is the case, our levies could be lowered and that would mean property tax relief. We will see what the next round of debate brings.