Sen. Ernie Chambers (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
The Nebraska Legislature moved Friday toward banning mountain lion hunting, and helping people who need legal guardians. Meanwhile, a committee recommended tax changes that could leave more money in taxpayers pockets in the future.
The ban on mountain lion hunting is this year’s priority bill for Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. The Legislature legalized such hunts two years ago, during the time Chambers was forced out of the Legislature by term limits. Hunters killed two mountain lions, or cougars, in January, after the Game and Parks Commission issued permits for hunting mountain lions with dogs. Chambers criticized those high profile hunts. “One where there was a high bid; the second was where a person won by lottery. And these were publicity/marketing type operations,” he said.
The hunter who did not win the lottery for a permit paid $13,500 for his. Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz, opposing the ban, said allowing hunting would let the state study mountain lions and help ensure their future. “There needs to be more study. And because of the hunting season, and the money that is received from that, those studies can continue so we can find out more about the mountain lions. So that we find out more ways to give them what they need and the space they need so that they come in contact with humans less and less,” he said.
Chambers said Game and Parks could manage the population without allowing hunting. An amendment to his bill would maintain the permission that exists in current law to kill mountain lions if they threaten livestock or people. Senators gave the ban first-round approval on a vote of 31-5.
Senators also advanced a proposal for the state to hire up to 12 legal guardians who would be available to people who can’t handle their own legal affairs because of factors like age or disability. Currently, Nebraska relies on volunteers for such services, but a recent audit found cases where courts had appointed someone who diverted clients funds for personal use.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson questioned the move to public guardians. “I don’t want to, because of this, have sons and daughters and people who could be responsible and ought to take on that responsibility looking after their elderly parent and agreeing to serve as guardian and or conservator of those funds from just abrogating that responsibility and saying ‘I’m not going to do it. It can be the state, it can be the public guardian that’s going to handle these things,’” he said. “I think if that’s where we get to, then this is going to mushroom and the state is going to bear a lot of this expense that it necessarily should not have.”
Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, who introduced the bill, said Nebraska is the last state to rely solely on volunteers, and they’ll continue to play a big role. “We are Nebraskans, and we tend to take care of our own. We haven’t had a problem finding volunteers. We haven’t had a problem with family members step[ping up. And that will continue to be the case,” he said. “We will still have volunteer lawyers who will step up and provide this. We will still have family members who will step up and provide these services. But as the last state, what we’re going to find is a growing need, and a diminished capacity.”
The proposal is estimated to cost nearly $900,00 the first year and $1.5 million the year after that. It advanced 34-0, with Nelson joining in the vote to move it along.
Friday afternoon, the Revenue Committee met to hash out various tax proposals. Lawmakers advanced one proposal that would index future state income tax brackets to inflation. That means people’s rates won’t go up simply because their incomes rise with the cost of living. The measure also exempts more Social Security income from taxation. It is projected to prevent the state from collecting about $120 million it would otherwise have taken in over the next four years.
Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said middle income people would notice an impact, but it wouldn’t be that great. “You’re not going to notice very much of it. You’re going to notice enough to say ‘Oh, something happened to my paycheck.’ But you’re not going to go out and party that night,’” he said.
No figures were immediately available on what indexing would mean to individual taxpayers at various income levels. A more expensive proposal that would actually lower tax rates is still sitting in committee, pending attempts to pare back its cost to the state treasury.
The Revenue Committee also advanced a scaled-down roads bonding proposal that would authorize the state to borrow up to 200 million dollars to speed road construction. That’s half the amount originally proposed, and it comes with an amendment that says the interest rate can’t exceed five percent, and the borrowing must take place in the next three years.