LINCOLN — Nebraskans will start paying more at the pump next year after state lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto Thursday and approved an increase in the gas tax.
First-term Gov. Pete Ricketts lost his first showdown with the Legislature when gas tax supporters squeezed out the 30 votes they needed to push the measure past his veto. Sixteen senators sided with Ricketts, who worked hard over the past week to block the 6-cent-per-gallon tax increase.
“The Legislature’s decision to raise the gas tax hurts hardworking Nebraskans who can least afford a tax hike,” Ricketts said in a statement released shortly after the vote.
Backers of Legislative Bill 610 said in exchange for a tax increase that will be phased in over four years, motorists will get smoother roads and safer bridges. The roughly $75 million per year generated by the increase will be shared by the state, counties and cities to chip away at a backlog of maintenance and repairs.
“The need is great, the options are few and waiting is not an option,” said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who sponsored the legislation.
The gas tax will increase 1.5 cents on Jan. 1. The tax will go up 1.5 cents every year after that on Jan. 1, for three more years, until the rate adds up to a 6-cent increase.
The override vote drew mixed reviews Thursday from customers filling up at a Lincoln gas station in view of the State Capitol. Mike Olson, 64, of Lincoln said you don’t have to drive far to see the need for more roads funding.
“At $2.50 a gallon, 6 cents isn’t that much,” he said. “I really don’t think anyone is going to notice it.”
But Jerry Oswald, 56, of Lincoln rolled his eyes when he learned about the vote.
He argued that gas taxes are already high. “And I don’t think they’re putting it to good use,” he said.
The current Nebraska gas tax of 25.6 cents per gallon hasn’t been raised since 2008. Seven states have raised their gas taxes this year, including Iowa, which passed a 10-cent per gallon boost.
The bill generated intense lobbying on both sides, including by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group that sent mass mailings opposing the tax in the legislative districts of several Republican state senators. Matt Litt, the group’s Nebraska director, called the vote “terribly disappointing.”
“Today is a win for special interests and a tough loss for Nebraska taxpayers,” he said.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha sided with Ricketts on the gas tax issue. Chambers dislikes the tax because it falls harder on consumers with low incomes.
Several additional senators said Thursday that they were called to meetings with the governor before the vote. Ricketts asked for time so Kyle Schneweis, the newly appointed roads director, could explore funding avenues and efficiencies to avoid a tax increase.
Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo said he supports the governor and wants to see him succeed. But Johnson sided with most of his constituents, who told him they were willing to pay more for better roads. And, he added, there is no magic wand a new director can use to erase a backlog of maintenance.
Smith, who is chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said he and the governor simply had a policy disagreement over the gas tax. Still, the conservative Republican said it was the toughest bill he has worked on during his five years in the Legislature.
“I’m thankful many of my colleagues saw beyond the political ramifications and voted for the needs of Nebraska,” he said. “That took great courage.”
The override vote produced the strongest show of support for LB 610. Following the third and final round of debate, the bill received 26 votes. Three senators who abstained on final reading — Sens. Bob Krist and Heath Mello of Omaha and Matt Hansen of Lincoln — voted for the override. And Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis switched from voting against the bill to voting in favor of the veto override.
Davis said the input he received from constituents in the week between the two votes led him to change his position. He said support is especially strong for the Heartland Expressway across the Panhandle and maintaining bridges over the Niobrara River.
“People drive long distances in my district, and they need good roads to do it,” Davis said.
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