LINCOLN — City officials from Omaha to Scottsbluff gathered Tuesday in Lincoln to plead for a bill allowing voter-approved increases in local sales taxes.
They cast the issue as one of local control, in which voters would be given the power to decide about paying for the needs in their communities.
"I would urge all senators to trust the local voters to make the best decisions for their communities," said Dave Boeckner, president of the League of Nebraska Municipalities and a Scottsbluff city council member.
But Gov. Dave Heineman, speaking earlier in the day, called the issue one of "increased spending and increased taxes."
Legislative Bill 357, approved by lawmakers last week, would allow cities to raise sales taxes by much as a half-cent, in addition to the 1.5 cents allowed under current law.
The governor called the potential increase unreasonable and said it would hurt economic development efforts.
"This tax increase would not only be on the working men and women of Omaha, Lincoln and other cities, but every Nebraskan who shops in these cities," he said last week.
Heineman has promised to veto the bill. He has until Wednesday to sign or veto it.
City leaders are gearing up for an override fight, which most likely would occur April 18, the last day of the legislative session.
Omaha State Sen. Brad Ashford, who introduced LB 357, expressed confidence that the 30 senators who voted to pass the bill would be there for an override attempt. An override requires support from 30 of the 49 state lawmakers to succeed.
"Our colleagues, I believe, are going to stick with us," he said. "I believe we can do it."
Ashford said he and Lynn Rex, the league's executive director, will travel the state during the next few days to promote the bill. He said they hope to visit several communities on the "Trust the People Tour."
Several city officials talked about what could be done with additional sales tax revenue.
Bellevue could put additional sales tax authority to use in developing the city's south corridor, Mayor Rita Sanders said.
"This is a partnership and a tool that our city does need for economic development," she said.
Colleen Lawry, Gretna's city administrator, said the revenue could be used to build a city aquatic center, one of 15 projects named in a strategic plan. Gretna has lacked the funding to proceed with it, she said.
Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt said the potential sales tax would make one group in the city extremely happy: The tax would replace the city's unpopular tax on restaurant and bar bills. The rest would go for infrastructure projects, which could include the federally mandated sewer separation project.
Omaha officials, along with leaders from other cities, say the sales tax option would help cities cope with the elimination of two state aid programs and the reduction of federal funds.
"I would encourage the voters of Nebraska to tell government to stop slamming the lid to the toolbox shut," Gernandt said.
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