Park fee increases, Medicaid expansion, and ag prop tax credits under consideration

Nebraska lawmakers debate park fees (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 10, 2016 - 4:14pm

The Nebraska Legislature debated raising fees for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities Thursday, while lawmakers continued maneuvering over Medicaid and property taxes.

Omaha Sen. John McCollister is sponsoring the bill that would let the Game and Parks commission raise fees. McCollister says they haven’t increased since 2010, and he wants to update them. "Of surrounding states with park fees, Nebraska is tied for the lowest at $25. So I think the fee schedule is more than reasonable," McCollister said.

McCollister was referring to the annual fee for residents to enter state parks. Information he distributed shows that Missouri and Iowa do not charge such fees, paying for parks out of taxes. Kansas is tied with Nebraska at $25, while South Dakota charges $30, Wyoming $33, and Colorado $70. McCollister’s bill would allow Nebraska to charge up to $35.

But McCollister’s bill has a determined foe in Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. Chambers wants to deny Game and Parks the authority to schedule hunting seasons for mountain lions, whose preservation he has adopted as a cause.

Chambers has filed an amendment to gut McCollister’s bill and substitute his own ban on mountain lion hunting. In the meantime, he has also filed a series of motions aimed at delaying a vote on the bill, to increase pressure on lawmakers to side with him, if they are anxious to get things done as time dwindles in the legislative session.

Chambers called attention to his strategy Thursday, even singing about it. "I want you all to take note of what I’m doing. And I want you to take note of how much time we have. And we’re at the point where I usually give a rendering of that song," he said, before warbling "Time is on my side, yes it is."

Lawmakers ran out of time for the day without reaching a first-round vote on McCollister’s bill.

Meanwhile, the Health and Human Services Committee voted 4-3 to send a revised version of Medicaid expansion legislation to the full Legislature for debate. The proposal would use federal Medicaid money offered under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, mostly to buy private insurance for up to an estimated 97,000 Nebraskans. It would use $63 million from an accounted largely funded by a settlement with tobacco companies to pay the state’s cost for the first three years, while a consultant works to figure out future costs.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward opposed advancing the bill. Kolterman said that the proposed source of state funds, the so-called Health Care Cash Fund, is already being used for programs including respite care, gambling assistance, mental health and children’s health insurance. "I’m not interested in depleting that down to zero because if we do, we’re going to have to come up with another way to find some tax to pay for these programs, that have been in existence for years," Kolterman said.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, a leading supporter of expanding Medicaid, said the Health Care Cash Fund doesn’t need to remain in existence. She said the law does not call for it to continue "in perpetuity." However, Campbell said she and other Medicaid expansion supporters will work to replenish the fund.

And the Legislature’s Revenue Committee is considering yet another idea for providing property tax relief. The latest proposal is a property tax credit specifically for agricultural property. Ag property gets about $82 million of an existing $204 million property tax credit program, with the rest going to homeowners and businesses. Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, chairman of the Revenue committee, said a credit would address the heavy reliance on ag property taxes to fund schools. "If the skewing right now is towards ag land, then maybe looking at property tax credit for ag only is not only the most direct way to do it but perhaps also the easiest way by way of explanation and pointing out what we’re trying to do. The question is where do you come up with the money?" he said.

Gloor said the committee is talking in the range of $20 million to $30 million. That would represent between about a quarter and a third increase over agriculture’s share of an existing property tax credit. In addition to raising the question of where the money would come from, it also raises the question of whether urban senators would support an increase that does not benefit their constituents.

Discussion of the ideas is expected to continue next Tuesday, when senators return from a four-day weekend.



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