Floor debate begins

By Deb Fischer, Senator, District 43 Bill introduction is complete with 698 bills and 11 constitutional amendments being introduced this legislative session. Committee hearings began on January 18th and floor debate on January 20th. I have heard from many of you about several bills that have beenintroduced to increase taxes. Two bills to increase the tobacco tax, LB436 and LB 590, have been introduced by Senator Mike Gloor of GrandIsland. LB 436 raises the tax on cigarettes from $.64 to $1.99, whichis over a 200% increase. LB 590 closes a loophole that allowsdistributors to avoid paying the tobacco tax. A bill to increase the gas tax, LB 504, was introduced by Senator Kathy Campbell of Lincoln. This bill proposes to raise the current state fuel tax by over eight cents by October 2012. Senator Campbell introduced this bill to fund the highway funding gap. I would like to clarify that I also introduced a highway funding bill, LB 84. My proposal does not call for any tax or fee increase. LB 84 targets a half cent of existing sales tax dollars to be put into a newly created State Highway Capital Improvement Fund. My position on tax increases is clear; I oppose all tax increases,including these proposed increases on tobacco and gasoline. Also, I donot think the state should try to fix the budget shortfall by increasingtaxes on a specific population of the state. Rather, I think we as aLegislature need to take this opportunity to closely examine our agencies and the services they provide. Unfortunately, this examinationwill lead to difficult choices, but they are decisions that must bemade. As I discussed in an earlier column, a number of bills have beenintroduced dealing with the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR).Nine bills dealing with the CIR and the State Employees CollectiveBargaining Act have been introduced, including one constitutionalamendment. The bills deal with everything from eliminating these actsto significantly reforming them. LB 664, introduced by Senator JohnNelson of Omaha, eliminates the CIR and prohibits public employees fromstriking. LB 619 introduced by Senator Tyson Larson of O'Neill wouldeliminate school districts, learning communities and educational serviceunits from the CIR's jurisdiction. The CIR, as it functions today, has been targeted as causing thesignificant increases in government budgets over the last decade, fromlocal school districts to cities and even the state. Given our currentbudget shortfall, the state will likely be cutting aid to counties,schools and municipalities. These cuts will mean our local governmentswill have to decrease their budgets, which could mean public employeeswill not receive raises. Our local governments need to be able to dealwith the realities of budget shortages without fear of the CIR forcingthem to increase salaries and other benefits. I will closely monitorthese bills as they make their way through the committee process. I introduced, LB 158, a bill I think will provide a great service topeople in our Legislative district. The bill expands the onlineissuance of driver licenses. Since early last year, the Department ofMotor Vehicles has provided an online renewal and duplicate process.The program has proven popular with over twenty-five thousand peopleutilizing the online service to date. The bill expands the use ofonline driver license renewal to permit holders (teen drivers) who havepassed all required examinations, and expands the maximum age foron-line renewal from 65 to 72. The bill was voted out of theTransportation and Telecommunications Committee and was advanced fromGeneral File debate on January 21st. If you have any thoughts or concerns on bills, please feel free tocontact my office at 402-471-2628 or at dfischer@leg.ne.gov. As always, thank you for sharing in our legislative process, and I'll visit with you again next week.