By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – State Sen. Ernie Chambers made an unorthodox, and ultimately unsuccessful, move to try to pull out of committee his bill repealing a law passed last year that allows cities to increase sales tax rates up to a half-cent.
Chambers made a “pull motion” on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature to get his bill out of committee, but his motion didn’t come to a vote before the hour he was allotted ended.
He vowed to try again.
Chambers, an independent maverick veteran senator who is a master at filibustering and using parliamentary procedure, needed 25 votes and found support from conservative Republican lawmakers who oppose the tax increase, but it wasn’t enough. His bill also is supported by Americans for Prosperity.
Chambers wants to repeal a law passed last year, during his four-year hiatus from the Legislature, because he opposes sales taxes in general, which he call regressive taxes that hurt poor people.
Under the law, cities can increase sales tax rates a half-cent, up to a maximum of 2 cents on the dollar (7.5 cents total, including the state sales tax), with the approval of a super-majority of the local governing board and a vote of the people.
Chambers said “there is no crisis” that justifies the sales tax option, and the law allows some of the revenue generated to go to private use, which he opposes.
“The whole kit and kaboodle is something that is not wise and it ought to be undone,” Chambers said.
Chambers is upset with the Revenue Committee for advancing bills adding sales tax exemptions, while sitting on his bill, arguing the topic could be part of a planned tax modernization study. The committee deadlocked on his bill, 4-4.
Sen. Galen Hadley, chairman of the Revenue Committee, defended his panel, saying the law had plenty of debate – stretching over two sessions before passing and only after overriding the governor’s veto. He questioned the wisdom of passing bills and then undoing them one year later.
“This bill has been in effect less than a year,” Hadley said. “Three municipalities have made use of it already.”
The cities of Sidney and Alma and the village of Waterloo have increased sales taxes, while Nebraska City and Bellevue voters rejected proposals to increase theirs.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said while a pull motion is allowed by the rules, “That doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.” Committees act as gatekeepers, he said.
“If it’s OK to pull (LB)266 out, then what’s next?” Lathrop asked.
With the Legislature hard-pressed to get all priority bills heard, approval of a pull motion would be a “disaster for the administration of this body,” he said.
“If it’s a good idea on 266 I can tell you there’s some nutty ideas that are coming up next,” Lathrop said. “We could spend the rest of the session on filibusters and pull motions and we’ll probably get nothing done.”
Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy disagreed, saying the rules allow such motions, noting Chambers once employed it to try to repeal the death penalty. McCoy also noted Chambers’ bill was cosponsored by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, who introduced the original bill Chambers seeks to repeal.
Ashford has said if the state tax system is reformed and sales tax broadened, cities won’t need to increase their sales tax rates.
Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said committees play a valuable role in honing bills, and with about 25 priority bills still in committees, she questioned whether more senators would try to pull them out.
“I believe fervently that the work of the Legislature is not a win-loss (game),” she said. “We’re here to do the work of the people of Nebraska. We have set up a system to do that, and I think that system should be honored.”
Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen said nothing in the rules says pull motions can only be done in extraordinary circumstances and in any case, “I think this is extraordinary.”
“This is a tax increase — I don’t care which way you put it,” Janssen said. “And it’s a regressive tax increase.”
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, chairman of the Rules Committee, said pull motions are in the rules for a reason. He said he “foolishly” supported the sales tax bill last session and would like “another bite at the apple.”
“You’re not a rabid baying mob. You’re a bunch of senators… and if you want this out of committee that’s your prerogative,” he said.
Omaha Sen. Burke Harr disagreed, saying pull motions are meant for situations where committees are abusing their authority.
Sen. John Murante said he hates the committee process because a bill could have dozens of cosponsors but if four people on a committee don’t like it, it won’t reach the floor.
“I think we’re putting too much power in the hands of too few people,” he said.
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