Public votes on committee chairs rejected; income tax hike heard

Sen. Mike Groene speaks in the Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 23, 2019 - 5:37pm

The Nebraska Legislature rejected holding public votes for committee chairs Wednesday. And a proposal to raise income taxes on upper-income Nebraskans was heard in the Revenue Committee.

Sen. Mike Groene offered the rules change that would have made votes for committee chairs public. Currently, chairs are elected by senators via secret ballot.

Groene said that should be changed in the interest of transparency. “There should be no secrets. Who you vote for chairman you should be proud of. Who you vote for speaker you should be proud of, and you should be able to defend it, not only with your colleagues but also with your constituents,” he said.

Sen. Sue Crawford, chair of the Rules Committee, opposed the proposal. She said in other states, public committee elections have reinforced partisanship and resulted in what she called chairmanships for sale.

“In other states we hear people are directed to raise money for the party. Raise money for the party in order to get a chairmanship. I’m happy to say that has not been the case in our state. Instead, the races have been more about the qualifications of the candidates and what we think they will bring to the body, not about raising money for the parties,” she said.

Senators are elected to the Legislature without party labels on the ballot, although all but one are members of a political party. Groene is a  Republican; Crawford is a Democrat. There are 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats, and one independent, Sen. Ernie Chambers, in the Legislature.

Also opposing the measure was Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat who was elected this year to chair the Judiciary Committee. Lathrop said partisan pressure is real. “When I served previously, there was pressure on – primarily Republicans, mostly ‘cause Democrats can’t get that organized – primarily Republicans at their luncheons, at their meetings. We’ve had Republican leadership sit in the balcony and oversee elections of chairmen,” Lathrop said.

Groene said partisanship already exists in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, but Republicans, which he called by the initial “R”, are not to blame. “We know that a bloc exists and it’s exist(ed) for a lot of years. And it’s not the R’s,” he said. “If the R’s would have been a bloc, no Democrat would have ever held a chairmanship in this body over the last 30, 40, 50 years. It is not the R’s that vote party lines, partisan lines.”

Groene’s proposal was defeated, 25-22. All 22 votes in favor were cast by Republicans. The 25 against it comprised 17 Democrats, 1 independent, and 7 Republicans.

These are the votes and party affiliations of senators on public voting for committee chairs.

Wednesday afternoon, the Revenue Committee held a public hearing on a proposal by Sen. Tony Vargas. His bill would lower income taxes for some couples with incomes of less than $75,000, but raise them on those above $200,000, and especially on those above $1 million.

 Overall, it is estimated to raise more than $100 million a year. Vargas said that would help counter the pressure for budget cuts. “Without raising revenue, children and seniors will continue to face cuts to services they rely on, again. Lifesaving health services will be cut, again. Programs that protect the safety of our water and our roads will be cut, again. The university and state college budgets will be cut again to the detriment of students who are already struggling to find a way to pay for school,” Vargas said.

“While that revenue that would be generated by LB50 would not completely fill the budget gap, it’s an important first step for us to take together,” he added.

Renee Fry of the Open Sky policy institute supported the bill, referring to polls that showed strong support for increasing taxes on upper income people. That led Sen. Curt Friesen to ask “Would you agree with the statement that 99.9 percent of the people would support a tax increase on somebody else?”

As laughter in the hearing room subsided, Fry responded “I’ve heard that before…income inequality in the country is a real thing.”

“When you look at the effective tax rates, too, our income tax is a progressive tax until you get to the top, and then it actually declines. So I actually think it’s not so much about taxing someone else, but making sure that people who have the ability to pay are paying taxes,” she added.

Groups including the Platte Institute and the Lincoln Independent Business Association opposed the bill. So did the state and and Greater Omaha Chambers of Commerce and the Nebraska Bankers Association. Speaking for those last three groups, Ron Sedlacek urged the opposite strategy of that contained in the bill. “Lowering income taxes removes a burden from businesses and individuals, encourages capital flow into the state, and bolsters job creation,” he said.

The Revenue Committee is expected to spend much of this legislative session wrestling with how to change income and other taxes in an attempt to relieve property taxes.  

 

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