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Why is a State Senator sometimes present for a vote on legislation, but does not vote?
Let me walk you through an actual bill: LB461 came out of the Revenue Committee; it is commonly known as the Governor’s and Revenue Committee Chairman’s “Comprehensive Income Tax and Property Tax Relief” effort. The original language of LB461 was “Correct references to a federal act in a revenue statute”, a normal cleanup bill to match changes in federal income tax law to Nebraska’s income tax policy. LB461 became what is referred to as a “committee shell bill”, where comprehensive legislation can be created. Related individual legislation introduced by senators are assigned to the committee and after a public hearing, can be amended into the shell bill in executive session (attended by the press but not the public). At least 3 bills (none of which were introduced by me) were amended into LB461 to create a comprehensive tax reform bill. It gets complicated, but other revisions are also made in committee to create the end product—changes that may not have had a public hearing. I do not disagree with the system; as Chairman of the Education Committee we used LB512 as the shell bill that became the Education Committee’s effort to create comprehensive education reform. But like all good policy intentions, it is only as good as the humans in charge; the committee process on creating shell bills can and has been abused.
Because I agreed with some but not all of the property tax reforms in LB461, I was one of the majority of the Revenue Committee members to advance the bill to General File. We needed to have a public debate on the floor of the legislature on tax policy and I wanted to be able to put emphasis on our burdensome property taxes. The overall bill I could not support; it was heavily weighted towards income tax cuts over property tax relief (10-1), and frankly my constituents have not asked me for income tax relief, their focus has been on burdensome property taxes.
The way the Unicameral works with its three stages of debate—general file, select file and final reading—it allows for the opportunity to amend a bill to refine the final product. I was amenable if the right corrective amendment came to the floor, but it was not going to happen. “The never in their lifetime” opponents of income tax cuts were filibustering the bill and we were never going to get to a good amended tax bill. So when after the six hours allowed for debate ended and the cloture vote was taken to proceed to vote on advancing LB461, I stayed neutral: present–not voting. Cloture takes a super majority of 33 votes; it failed 27 yes, 9 no and 13 present—not voting.
Casting a present—not voting vote is basically a soft no vote. It sends the message to the bill’s proponents that I may agree with you that we have an issue that needs to be addressed, but I do not agree with your solution. When asked by a reporter last year if we failed to accomplish all that needed to be done, my reply was, “Nebraska has existed for 150 years without the failed legislation, I believe it will make it through another year until we do it right.”
The debate on LB461 was another step in the stairs to reach property tax relief; we are building to a crescendo on the issue. My input is one of many trying to put together the right language for a petition initiative to allow citizens to directly address the property tax issue. So stay tuned.
I appreciate all of the positive feedback we have received on last week’s NCORPE/windmill column. No one is attacking the system of local government we have, including the Natural Resource Districts; what citizens have a right to do is question the decision that those elected bodies make and have the expectation that those they elect, with oversight of those local entities, do exactly that and if necessary, fix the issue with corrective legislation. It is called democracy in action.
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