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Don Walton: Business incentives taken hostage; it’s legislative hardball now

DON WALTON Lincoln Journal StarMay 27, 2019

OK, we’re playing hardball now.

That was the sport vividly on display in the Legislature last Friday afternoon as rural senators, with a little help from a few urban friends, blocked legislation to enact a new Nebraska business tax incentives program.

Although there were big-time players outside the legislative chamber — like the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska State Education Association — lined up in opposition to the proposal, that successful filibuster was a defeat for the legislative lobby gathered in the Rotunda.

A couple of hours later, a team of lobbyists and a team of state senators met for their traditional session-ending basketball scrimmage.

Word has it that the lobbyists prevailed in that one; the only thing we probably can be certain about is that the legislative team didn’t score 33 points. And probably never would have.

That’s the elusive number required to end a filibuster on the legislative floor.

On the motion to free the tax incentives bill from the grip of its opponents, the score was 30-18 and you lose.

If you compare that vote with the tally that advanced the proposal from first-stage consideration earlier in the week, you’ll see that six rural senators abandoned the bill after the Legislature failed to move Sen. Tom Briese’s proposal to increase property tax relief by $112 million a year.

Briese had warned his colleagues that this would be a package deal or no deal at all. Speaker Jim Scheer agreed that was the reality and voted accordingly.

So, here we are: The band of rural senators, with the help of three colleagues from Omaha and one from Lincoln, have leverage now.

“Myself and three other progressive senators opposed the new business incentives package because it failed to include LGBT non-discrimination protections, paid family leave and other protections for workers,” Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln tweeted.

“We hope next year they take us seriously.”

And Morfeld also pointed to Chamber of Commerce silence, or “open hostility,” to providing Medicaid expansion health care coverage for working Nebraskans.

“The days of progressive senators supporting Chamber of Commerce initiatives that provide government assistance to businesses while they stand idly by or in open hostility to similar assistance to individuals is over,” he said.

We’ve got something going on here.

If there was still time, something might even be accomplished this year.

But the Legislature has just two more days scheduled and will conclude its session next week with zero appetite to extend the session, an action that would require 40 votes.

So, the bargaining will need to take place during the interim before the 2020 Legislature steps onto the stage next January.

There’ll be considerable pressure for the Legislature to act swiftly on business tax incentives early in the next session to send a quick signal to businesses and developers that Nebraska has a modernized program up and running to replace the tax incentive program that expires at the end of next year.

Businesses and developers plan a year or two, or more, in advance of their location and expansion decisions.

The clock is ticking now both for tax incentives and for rural senators; there’ll be two fewer of them after legislative redistricting following the 2020 census.

So, now that the state’s business tax incentives program has been taken hostage, the message is clear: “Let’s talk.”

* * *

Finishing up:

* This year’s class of freshman senators jumped right into the fray, recognizing that you’ve got eight years max to accomplish stuff — unless you’re Ernie Chambers.

* Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon says the Legislature should act on property tax reduction and business tax incentives before it adjourns this year: “Instead of adjourning early, we should spend every available minute on negotiating an agreement that addresses both high property taxes and other economic development needs.”

* Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard says the initiative petition drive to propose a constitutional amendment allowing Nebraskans to claim a state income tax credit for 35 percent of their local property taxes paid is “going strong” and he expects the measure to be on the 2020 general election ballot.

* Back to Boulder for football again this year: one of the last times we went, we took the Nebraska license plates off the car and placed them in the trunk so the tires would be undamaged after the game ended. Colorado and Missouri were always rough road games for Husker fans.

* Approaching June, the amazing Twins and the wounded Yankees are this season’s baseball stories so far. More to come.

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