LINCOLN — The idea of charging Nebraska motorists $7 to help pay for state parks has exited the legislative freeway.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, said he probably had the 25 votes to advance LB 362, but not the 30 to override a probable veto by the governor. So he announced Wednesday that he would try to work out a compromise before asking that it be debated further later in the session.
Avery introduced the bill on behalf of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which is searching for a way to pay for $43 million in delayed maintenance and projects needed to make parks accessible for people with disabilities.
“We're talking about a state treasure that's enormously important to our economy,” Avery said.
The bill faced a filibuster from senators who said Nebraskans already pay too much to register their vehicles.
“This is still a tax,” said Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, who led the opposition. “You can call it whatever you want, but it's a tax that everybody with a motor vehicle will be paying.”
The $7 fee collected during the registration of certain nonfarm and noncommercial vehicles would have raised about $12 million annually.
Any resident with a validly licensed vehicle would have been able to enter a state park, as the bill also would have ended the $25 annual or $5 daily park sticker.
Nonresident park users would still have had to buy permits.
Park permits raised $5.6 million in 2012. Permits, along with cabin rentals and other fees, cover about 70 percent of the $22 million annual budget for state parks. The remaining 30 percent comes from a general fund appropriation.
Several senators who spoke in favor of the bill mentioned park or recreation areas in their districts that need maintenance work. To deal with flat appropriations or revenue over the years, Game and Parks has reduced services such as regular mowing and trash removal at many of the lower-traffic parks.
Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill said the park areas in his district have to compete with well-maintained parks across the border in South Dakota.
“Keep people in Nebraska, spending their money in Nebraska,” Larson said.
Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft argued that using vehicle registration fees for parks struck her as a better approach than raising the cost of the entry permit again. The Legislature last raised permit fees in 2011, over the governor's veto.
Dubas, who filed multiple amendments to filibuster the bill, cited a 2011 report in which Nebraska's average vehicle registration fees of $306 ranked seventh-highest among the states.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha pledged to help Dubas, calling the bill a “monstrosity” that “extorts” money from motorists who may never even visit a state park.
“This is one of the most atrocious bills I've ever seen and I will fight it, I will fight it, I will fight it,” Chambers declared.
After debate ended Wednesday, Avery said he would try to build consensus around another proposal, perhaps one that would combine permit revenue with some other source of funding. If he can, he will ask Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams to put the bill back on the agenda.
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