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Don Walton: New Legislature looks more daring, independent

January 14, 2019

There’s a new Legislature in town.

And it sure looks like a different one.

Time to buckle up now.

Yes, yes, it’s way too early to tell, but this 2019 Legislature has the look — and the vibes — of a far more independent legislative body than its predecessor.

And maybe more daring, perhaps even adventurous.

So adventurous that it might even consider raising some additional revenue to address lingering issues like the pace of prison reform, an aspirational university’s budget needs and depletion of the state’s cash reserve, aka the rainy day fund.

While sales or income tax rate hikes almost certainly remain off the table, that long list of state sales tax exemptions, tax incentives and tax credits might be in play.

Along with other revenue-producing possibilities like an increase in the state cigarette tax rate. One veteran senator already is privately predicting that.

Collection of state sales taxes already owed for online purchases is on course to produce additional state revenue and the battle there will be over whether to detour all of that new and growing source of revenue into property tax relief or secure it, or a share of it, for current and future state budget needs.

While it’s too early to know what this new Legislature is going to do, it is clear that this is a different creature.

The first day told us that.

Suddenly, committee leadership positions in Nebraska’s unique non-partisan Legislature were awarded once again to both Democrats and Republicans with a focus returned to merit-based factors such as expertise and experience rather than party affiliation and political philosophy.

Steve Lathrop would not have been elected chairman of the Judiciary Committee two years ago.

But he was last week — unanimously and unopposed.

That alone was a bugle blast announcing that this is a different Legislature than the one it has replaced.

* * *

What hasn’t changed are the built-in restraints.

It still will take 33 votes in the 49-member Legislature to break a filibuster that opponents may wage to trap legislation and it still will take 30 votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

Those are fundamentally conservative restraints.

Changes in tax exemptions, incentives or credits that could raise additional revenue would face the prospect of gubernatorial vetoes.

And so might an effort to secure all, or even some, of the additional — and growing — sales tax revenue from online purchases for purposes other than property tax reduction.

But, as recent Legislatures have demonstrated, the veto hurdle can be breached.

Not always, but sometimes.

It’s the filibuster that stands as the most powerful barrier — and that’s been used to help both sides of the political spectrum at times, most often to prevent or block change.

A look at the composition of the Legislature’s new Rules Committee suggests that the filibuster instrument will remain unchanged.

* * *

Finishing up:

* Latest Morning Consult Senate approval/disapproval ratings gathered in a survey ending on Dec. 31: Ben Sasse, 46-30; Deb Fischer, 45-36.

* A caller who spoke with Gov. Ricketts on his monthly statewide radio call-in show last week suggested that the governor would be a great presidential candidate.

* Another caller said: “Have a good time at the Legislature.”

* Sen. Lynne Walz has introduced a bill designed to make it easier for cities and municipalities to create public-private partnerships with internet service providers in an effort to help expand broadband service throughout rural Nebraska.

* In the mail all the way from Australia comes a late Christmas gift from David Ogilvy, an Aussie reader in Goolwa located in “South Oz”: It’s a colorful Adelaide Crows scarf, along with a reminder that “Footy,” or Australian football, starts in April. It’s also a reminder that online stories travel the world. Go, Crows!

* The governor’s long-anticipated 2019-2021 budget recommendations will be made public on Tuesday when he addresses the Legislature.

* Lincoln was transformed into a spectacular winter painting by the artistry of last week’s snowfall.

* Here comes Michigan State, and probably the best coach in the league, on Thursday night. The arena should be raucous and rowdy as the Spartans attempt to rob the bank.

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