LINCOLN — New bureaucracy had its day Wednesday at the State Capitol.
Among the proposals introduced were ones that would require pipeline projects crossing Nebraska — like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline — to obtain state approval before they could proceed.
Another bill would require development of a plan to merge Omaha and Douglas County governments by next year, and, if it was deemed a good idea, to put it before voters for approval.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, who has pushed city-county consolidation before, said the City of Omaha's financial woes won't be solved unless it merges with the county.
“Right now, we're stuck with paying for duplicative services and pensions we can't afford,” Ashford said. “Cities aren't going to survive across the country unless they make significant changes in the way they do business.”
He said he had worked with Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle on the proposal, Legislative Bill 344.
Ashford said LB 344 is the first of a trio of proposals he plans to introduce to help Omaha's financial problems.
Another would allow the city to increase its local sales tax, so it could eliminate or lower its wheel tax and restaurant tax.
A third measure will address collective bargaining. Ashford said a city-county consolidation would allow the new entity to renegotiate its contracts with employee unions, contracts that have saddled the city with an enormous long-term debt.
LB 344 would require a committee to study consolidation. The committee would consist of three members appointed by the mayor, two by the Omaha City Council, two by the Douglas County Board and two by other communities in the county.
If the committee deemed it in the “public interest,” a plan for creating a “municipal county” government would be put before voters.
Douglas County Board member Clare Duda said he hadn't had a chance to read Ashford's bill yet but was skeptical.
“Looking at city and county mergers — it's been studied for 100 years,” Duda said. “They are very different functions. What we can and should merge, we have.”
Complaints that Nebraskans had little say about the controversial Keystone XL crude-oil pipeline inspired a proposal by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton.
Her bill, LB 340, would require pipeline companies, other than those transporting natural gas, to apply to the State Public Service Commission, which would hold public hearings to determine whether a project was in the public interest and had adequate environmental safeguards.
If a pipeline didn't get state approval, it would be barred from using eminent domain to obtain easements, which would severely cripple such projects.
Dubas, who headed a committee that looked at the Keystone XL pipeline last fall, said her bill addresses complaints that Nebraskans had no input on the pipeline project and lacked information from the company building it, TransCanada Inc.
The senator added that she doubted whether her bill would affect the Keystone XL project because a federal review is already under way, but she was double-checking that.
A TransCanada spokesman, Jeff Rauh, said the company had not had time to review LB 340, but he pointed out that its pipeline project is already undergoing a rigorous review by federal agencies.
Others bills introduced Wednesday included those dealing with:
&BULL; Homestead exemptions: Bellevue Sen. Abbie Cornett introduced four bills, LB 318 through LB 321, aimed at slowing the rising cost of homestead tax exemptions. One proposal would increase the age of eligibility from 65 to 67; another would raise income standards, thus reducing the number of people eligible for the tax break.
Cornett said her aim is to reduce the growth of the exemption, which is rising as baby boomers retire. The bills wouldn't affect the eligibility requirements for veterans and the handicapped. Cornett said those who are truly low-income would still qualify.
&BULL; Junker fees: Owners of motor vehicles at least 14 years old would pay a new, $10 fee to support state road-building needs under LB 327, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell. More than 628,000 vehicles fell into that category in 2008.
Owners of older vehicles no longer pay motor vehicle taxes, which decrease as a car ages.
&BULL; Tobacco-free school campuses: Cigarettes, pipes, chew and all other forms of tobacco would be banned on all public school grounds, including outdoor areas, under LB 313. The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, also would prohibit tobacco use at any school-sponsored activity —such as sporting events, a day camp, a field trip, an entertainment seminar, a dance or a theatrical production — or in vehicles used by a school for transportation.
Nebraska's smoking ban already applies to school buildings but not to school playgrounds, athletic fields or other outdoor areas. Nor does it apply to smokeless tobacco. Nordquist said there is a conflict between schools teaching about the dangers of tobacco use and allowing students, staff and visitors to set a bad example.
&BULL; Funeral picketers: People picketing funerals would have to stand 200 feet farther away under LB 284. Current state law requires that protestors stand 300 feet away during the hour before a service begins through two hours after the service. Omaha Sen. Bob Krist's proposal targets groups such the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., which regularly pickets funerals of soldiers and other high-profile figures.
&BULL; Self-defense: Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial introduced a new version of his “make my day” law. LB 298 would protect people acting in self-defense from being held liable for using deadly force. It also would make it easier to assert self-defense and would remove a requirement that a person avoid using deadly force by retreating.
Christensen's proposal would give people the right to defend themselves with deadly force in any place they have the legal right to be, whether at home, on the street or elsewhere.
World-Herald staff writer John Ferak contributed to this report.
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