Question of controls at center of tax debate; rules fight erupts

Lt. Gov. Mike Foley presides over the Legislature Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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May 1, 2019 - 5:28pm

Will a tax reform proposal in the Nebraska Legislature result in increased government spending? That’s at the heart of an argument between Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee. And Lt. Gov. Mike Foley got caught in the middle of a nasty fight over rules that could affect the rest of the session.

Gov. Ricketts has called the tax and school spending bill advanced by the Revenue Committee the largest tax increase in Nebraska history, and said it will lead to increased government spending.

 Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, said the governor is wrong, and the bill will shift the source of education funding from local property taxes to the state.

Wednesday, Ricketts said that’s been tried before and hasn’t worked. He predicted that spending controls in the proposal won’t work to keep down school spending. “They think they’ve built a better mousetrap, but it’s the same-old same-old. And so it will just repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said.

The Revenue Committee proposal would increase state aid to schools by roughly 50 percent, or half a billion dollars a year. And it would limit the amount of property taxes schools can collect to the rate of inflation plus real property growth, in the form of new construction.

 Linehan said previous attempts to limit school spending failed because they weren’t linked to inflation. “If you look at it historically, it was going up 4 or 5 percent, when inflation, especially over the last 10 years, has been basically flat to one and half, maybe two percent. So we have capped it at inflation, which should hold down future spending,” she said.

Linehan said the Legislature will begin debating the tax proposal next week.

Meanwhile, lawmakers got tangled up in a bruising rules fight Wednesday. The issue is highly technical, but the fallout could affect legislation for the rest of the session.

The trouble began after Sen. Michaela Cavanaugh tried to amend a cigarette tax increase into a technical bill by Sen. Tom Briese to update Nebraska law on tobacco settlement funds.

Briese objected that the amendment was not germane. But instead of raising a point of order, which is used to argue that point, Briese asked for a point of personal privilege, which the rules say shouldn’t be used to discuss legislative business.

Presiding over the Legislature, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley allowed Briese to continue. Sen. Ernie Chambers objected. “He is out of order by making, asking for a point of personal privilege. The chair is out of order for accepting it. And you all can mock me if you want to, but you need to watch what’s happening, because from now on, I am going to ask for a point of personal privilege every time I want to say something. The rules tell us the basis for personal privilege. I’m going to see what the chair does now,” he said.

Foley, sitting in the presiding officer’s chair, said Briese had made a mistake, but could continue. “Technically, I think what he’s raising is a point of order, not a point of personal privilege. I think he may have misspoken on that. But in any event, he’s eligible to raise the objection that he’s raising,” Foley said.

Sen. Mike Hilgers defended Foley’s decision. “Our rules matter a great deal. I also think that as long as we’re not subverting our rules or modifying them in a way for the long term, to be able to say ‘Hey, we’re not going to elevate form over substance, we’re going to allow the substance of the objection to move forward,’ I don’t think that was unreasonable,” Hilgers said.

Senators voted 27-20 to uphold Foley’s ruling that the cigarette tax amendment was not germane to Briese’s technical bill. They did not vote on whether Briese had violated the rules by using a point of personal privilege.

Sen. Anna Wishart said senators were setting a bad example for the rest of the state. “I am shocked that the rest of this body isn’t more concerned about what happened this morning. These are our rules. This is the foundation of us being able to create laws…We are the body that puts rules in place for the rest of Nebraskans. We better follow our own rules. And this morning we didn’t,” she said.

Chambers, who is black, interpreted the interaction between Foley and Briese, both of whom are white, in racial terms, and promised to try and kill Briese’s legislation. “You can’t stop me, and that man in the chair can’t stop me, because I’m going to do it by the rules – the white people’s rules, which they don’t have to follow. And if my buddy says something that’s inappropriate, my white buddy in the chair’s going to make it all right. And you all are going to go along with it, but I’m not,” Chambers said.

When approached with questions about the controversy, Foley referred  them to Taylor Gage, spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts. Gage responded with an email that said, simply “The Lt. Governor made the right decision and the body upheld his ruling.”

How the controversy will affect the Legislature’s ability to do business as the session gets considers tax legislation and other major issues may  become evident in the coming days.




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