LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts wasted no time vetoing a gas tax increase Thursday.
He issued his veto just hours after lawmakers passed Legislative Bill 610, which over four years would phase in a 6-cent increase in fuel taxes.
State senators passed that bill despite weeks of veto warnings from Ricketts, setting up the new Legislature’s and the new governor’s first big clash.
Whether the Legislature will prevail in the end remains unclear.
The 26-15 vote was enough to approve LB 610 but is four short of the 30 votes that would be needed to override the veto.
State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the bill’s sponsor, said he thinks other senators will step up to override the veto, just as he expected there would have been 33 votes to overcome the threat of a last-minute filibuster.
“I’m not one to thump my chest and make bold predictions, but I feel the votes are there and the votes are strong,” he said.
Smith, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee chairman, said he plans to file an override motion Tuesday, when the Legislature reconvenes after four days off.
Meantime, Ricketts said, he will be talking with senators, urging them to uphold his veto.
“No one ought to be surprised that I vetoed this bill,” he said. “The No. 1 issue I hear
about from hard-working Neb-
raskans is the need for tax relief. This is just the opposite.”
In his formal veto message, Ricketts noted that average gas prices have increased nearly 50 cents since LB 610 was introduced in January. He said a gas tax increase is regressive, meaning it would fall most heavily on low- and fixed-income Nebraskans.
It also would disproportionately affect rural Nebraskans who have to drive great distances in their daily lives.
On the other hand, road-building advocates — including city and county representatives — also will be lobbying senators before an override vote.
Smith said he is not normally a supporter of tax hikes and would prefer not to be at odds with Ricketts, a fellow Republican. But he said he saw it as his responsibility to ensure that funds are sufficient to address a backlog of repairs that runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
He noted that the widespread flooding in southern Nebraska Thursday increased that backlog by washing out or damaging some rural bridges.
“I believe it’s needed,” he said of LB 610. “I believe it’s fair. It can be part of sound tax policy.”
Starting in 2016, the bill would increase the state’s gas tax by 6 cents a gallon in phases over four years. The current tax is 25.6 cents a gallon, of which 7.7 cents goes to cities and counties.
The tax increase would generate an estimated $75 million more a year to repair bridges, fill chuckholes and fix roads. The money would be shared equally by the state, cities and counties.
Funds from LB 610 would be used on maintenance, replacement and repair; the 2011 Build Nebraska Act, in contrast, earmarked a quarter-cent of the state’s sales tax to build new expressways and highway projects.
Ricketts has been pushing for weeks to defeat LB 610, calling it a “big government approach” to the problem.
He has urged lawmakers to wait until Kyle Schneweis, his newly named roads director, can search for other ways to address the maintenance and repair backlog.
The governor announced his pick Friday. Schneweis is to start work June 8.
Ricketts said Thursday there are many ideas Nebraska should explore to save money and stretch state and local road-building funds.
Other states, he said, have cut costs by using public-private partnerships, improving operations, reducing administrative overhead, and providing greater regulatory flexibility to cities and counties.
Smith, on the other hand, said there would be no way to find enough money through efficiencies to meet roads needs.
In addition, he said, the new roads director will have jurisdiction only over state roads and bridges, while cities and counties still will face their own maintenance problems.
If lawmakers do not provide another source of funds, Smith said, pressure will build on local property and sales taxes to meet the road needs.
World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.
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