Online sales tax advances; LGBT employment discrimination debated

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in debate Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 4, 2019 - 4:46pm

Nebraskans will start paying sales tax on more online purchases next month, under a bill advancing in the Legislature. Also, debate opened on a proposal to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And a public hearing was held on making vaping illegal for those under 21.


Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states can collect sales tax on online purchases by their residents, even if the companies they buy from don’t have a physical presence in the state. Many companies, like Amazon, voluntarily collect those taxes on what they sell. Now, proposed legislation would require Amazon and other companies to do so, even if they’re simply providing a marketplace for other companies to sell their goods.

Much of the debate Monday centered on what to do with the extra money Nebraskans will pay – estimated by the Department of Revenue at $30 million to $40 million a year. Some senators want to specify it will go to property tax relief. Others say it’s impossible to separate it out.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, noted the proposed state budget puts slightly more than the estimated additional money into the property tax credit fund. “We’re taking the money, like I think we all want to – or at least most of us, I think -- and trying to address our overreliance on property taxes,” she said.

Taxing online sales has been seen as a way to support traditional “brick and mortar” stores, which have been collecting the tax, compared to online retailers, which have not. But Sen. John Lowe predicted the tax wouldn’t help much, because of young people’s buying habits. “They don’t do a lot of buying in brick and mortar stores. They go online because of the easiness of it. I think we’re barking at a tree that doesn’t have much fruit,” he said.

Senators voted 44-0 to give first-round approval to the bill.

They also began debate on this year’s version of a proposal to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Such proposals have repeatedly failed in Nebraska in recent years.

Opening on the bill, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks argued public opinion has shifted, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. “Times have changed, thank goodness. And it’s making Nebraska’s lack of movement on employment discrimination look absurd and archaic. Twenty one states and the District of Columbia already offer employment protections for their LGBTQ citizens, including our neighboring states of Colorado and Iowa,” she said. “These protections provide competitive economic advantages to states that offer them, because they increase the ability of employers to recruit and retain top talent across the country.”

Opponents argue the bill, LB627, could force employers to choose between their religious convictions and their desire to avoid costly lawsuits. Sen. Rob Clements was among those making that argument. Clements cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“LB 627 improperly intends to restrict the free exercise of employers’ religious beliefs and speech. LB627 properly protects the religious expression of employees. But it fails to protect the sincerely held religious beliefs of employers,” Clements said.

Debate on the bill will resume Tuesday morning. Under a policy announced previously by Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer, after a total of three hours of debate, Pansing Brooks would have to show support from two-thirds of the Legislature to overcome a filibuster in order for the bill to be scheduled for further consideration.

Monday afternoon, the General Affairs Committee held a public hearing on a proposal by Sen. Dan Quick to raise the age for vaping from 18 to 21. He said he is responding to school officials and the surgeon general who have said vaping is becoming an epidemic among young people.

Quick said raising the age would lessen its availability in schools. “When you have 18-year-old seniors who can currently buy the product, and then sell it or give it to a younger child, if you’re 21, you’re less likely to be hanging out with the high school kids. And that’s what we’re looking for, is to create that age separation,” he said.

Eric Johnson, who owns four vape stores in Omaha, was among those opposing the bill. Johnson said there are a lot of benefits to vaping, because it is safer than smoking. “The most intense adolescent vapers are far more likely to have been smokers – have been, past tense, smokers – seeking a healthier alternative,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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