The Legislature today Thursday advanced a new plan for regulating oil pipelines, and senators gave final approval to a bills affecting everything from taxes to horseracing.
Last November, amid public outcry over TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline route through the Sandhills, the Legislature passed two bills. One set up an expedited process for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to review existing pipeline applications, namely, the Keystone XL, and gave final approval authority to the governor. The other set up a longer term process to review future applications, by the Public Service Commission.
But then Congress forced a decision at the federal level, and the Obama administration rejected the pipeline. Now, TransCanada says it plans to reapply, and wants the expedited DEQ review left in place.
Originally, legislation would simply have extended the DEQ's authority to January 1. But critics said that would amount to special legislation likely to benefit only one company.
The new plan extends DEQ's authority indefinitely, and sends plans to the Public Service Commission only if after the DEQ review, the governor rejects the route.
Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said the new plan is fair to everyone. "We want to make sure that it's open and everybody has the same methodology and ability to go through the system," he said.
Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln objected to the new plan, saying numerous, substantial changes to the bill put had been proposed to senators at the last minute. "I think it's unfortunate that at this stage in the game we don't have an ability to have a thoughtful, independent review of those various and ever-moving changes and target that's been put forward here. And I think that's a disservice to the state to the citizenry and to this body," Conrad declared.
The new plan got second round approval on a voice vote. Pipeline opponents predicted that if the bill passes, a lawsuit is likely.
Meanwhile, the Legislature gave final passage to a series of bills. Among them was a scaled-down version of Gov. Dave Heineman's proposed income tax cut. It's expected to save a family of four with income of $50,000 about $54 a year when fully implemented.
Senators also approved a bill to require cities to let citizens vote on so-called occupation taxes, for example on restaurant meals, if they're expected to raise above certain amounts of money: $6 million for Omaha, $3 million for Lincoln, $700,000 for other cities with more than 5,000 people, and $300,000 for smaller cities.
Senators also passed a bill that that would allow cities, which can currently levy sales taxes up to 1.5 percent, to tax up to 2 percent with a vote of the people. The governor has promised to veto the bill, which would take 30 votes to override. The bill passed on a vote of 30-15.
Another potential veto candidate, a bill to allow betting on prerecorded so-called "historic" horse races, passed on a vote of 26-15.
Lawmakers also gave final approval to a series of reforms to the child welfare system, including higher payments for foster families, creating a Children's Commission to come up with a strategic plan, and an Inspector General to investigate trends in the system.
In addition, they approved a plan to require the Department of Health and Human Services to provide more in-person services to supplement phone and computer services to people seeking benefits.