LINCOLN — A legislative bill seeking better mass transit service in the Omaha metro area advanced Thursday despite complaints that it could increase property taxes.
State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said he first considered introducing Legislative Bill 492 after discussing how workers would get to the new Costco chicken-processing plant that will employ up to 1,000 people in Fremont, about 40 miles west of Omaha.
Under the proposal, communities like Fremont, as well as other suburban towns outside of Douglas County, could opt to join a new Regional Metropolitan Transit Authority that would have its own elected board, as well as authority to levy property taxes of up to 10 cents per $100 of property valuation in the participating communities.
Now, Metro transit can levy only as much taxes as approved by the City of Omaha and Douglas County — currently a levy of 5.6 cents.
It can provide bus service to suburban cities, like Bellevue, La Vista and Papillion, only via contractual agreements.
Wayne and other supporters of the bill said that if the Omaha area is to continue to grow, it needs a regional transportation system that better links workers with jobs.
“This bill is about making Omaha great again,” the senator said.
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An interim legislative study, he said, showed that some bus routes in Omaha provide bus rides twice a day, when service every 15 minutes to 30 minutes is really needed.
“We’re trying to correct that,” Wayne said.
The bill advanced from first-round debate on a 26-9 vote — just one vote more than needed — though three likely supporters were absent on Thursday.
It overcame complaints from senators, led by North Platte Sen. Mike Groene and Gretna Sen. Andrew La Grone, that LB 492 represented a property tax hike.
La Grone said there were better solutions to the problem of inadequate bus service than creating a new government bureaucracy with new authority to levy taxes.
“It’s a new tax on Sarpy County that will primarily provide service in Omaha,” he said, comparing it to the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
Wayne disputed that, saying that suburbs can voluntarily opt in to the new regional transportation authority — unlike the Learning Community — and would be able to negotiate for better bus services. They would also have a seat on the governing board.
Won’t Sarpy County employers, like PayPal, benefit from better bus service? he asked.
Wayne added that Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert could declare a property tax break if it stopped levying the 3 cents it now devotes to Metro. If the city didn’t lower its levy by that amount, the mayor would have a tough political issue on her hands, he said.
The Sarpy County delegation to the Legislature was split on the issue, with Bellevue Sens. Sue Crawford and Carol Blood voting yes and La Grone and Elmwood Sen. Robert Clements voting no.
Papillion Sen. John Arch, who asked several questions about the bill during debate, was present but did not vote. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce was among the supporters of the bill.
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