Sometimes, it seems, I only take my foot out of my mouth to change socks!
First, a little background. A couple weeks ago two folks came into the York News-Times office for an interview. Not surprising, it happens nearly every day. But our radar went off when we found out they were promoting an agenda that would benefit them both at our financial expense. And by “our expense,” I mean Nebraska taxpayers.
Curtis Smith, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Nebraska, and lobbyist Mary Johnson were out trying to sell the idea of raising gas taxes 10 cents a gallon, which would cost Nebraska drivers an extra $120 million. They wanted to use the money for road construction and repairs. Good idea, the construction and repairs. Bad idea, the additional taxes. Obviously, Smith the contractor and Mary the lobbyist would benefit, and we would foot the bill. It’s how the government’s appropriation process works … messy and filled with special interests, but legal.
Smith and Johnson were also keen on the idea that state Senator Deb Fischer, chairperson of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, was working on a plan to increase the Department of Roads budget by $100 to $125 million because the need is great and the current funding is inadequate.
This is where I bit into my size 11s, because while writing about that creepy 10 cent a gallon gas tax plan, I said Sen. Fischer has never met a gas tax she didn’t like. She got wind of my opinion column and her staff contacted me the next day, saying her plan would not contain any new taxes. Yeah right, I thought.
The next day the York News-Times received a press release from Fischer’s office summarizing her plan, and lo and behold, no new taxes! (It was time to change socks, then dine on a feast of crow.) She wants to set aside half of 1 percent of the state’s current sales tax and dedicate those dollars solely for the roads and infrastructure needs in Nebraska. It would come to about $125 million a year. It’s a fantastic idea!
And here’s the best part. That money would have to come out of the state’s other funding obligations. Net result? Better roads, no new taxes, smaller government. It is an outstanding plan, but with one small missing part. Fischer does not suggest what state departments or agencies will be short-changed. That, she said on a Lincoln radio show, is up to the legislature and the upcoming session where they will face difficult decisions on how to make up for a billion dollar shortfall in revenues.
In the past, as recently as 2008, Sen. Fischer tried to create a dependable road revenue source using the gas tax formulas, changing from a flat per gallon tax to a fixed percentage calculation with biannual adjustments. The problem is that gas prices fluctuate too much, and the allowable tax adjustments are not enough to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for new construction and repairs on the state’s highway system. It was a bad piece of legislation then and still is today.
This time the senator has it right, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost her plan would go a long way in solving the road funding issue, finally allowing Nebraska to complete its expressway system and maintain our roads and bridges in a manner which would benefit citizens, improve safety and aid economic development, all at the same time.
The second reason she has it right is that the current economic recession has forced Nebraska to reprioritize the state’s responsibilities. Fischer said in her press release, “The state faces a serious budget crisis in the upcoming session, and the Legislature has a great opportunity to truly determine the core functions of government and the priorities of Nebraska,” Senator Fischer said. “I believe those core functions include four areas: education; highways and infrastructure; public safety; and taking care of those who truly cannot care for themselves.”
This is Senator Fischer’s way of saying let’s put our money where our mouth is and get back to fulfilling the primary duties of state government, and that there are going to be some departments and agencies, lower on the priority pole, that are going to get their budgets cut.
If I read the tea leaves correctly, then “Way to go!” Sen. Deb Fischer.
Now the real work begins, and no doubt it will be an emotional session, filled with threats of reduced state services and special interest groups lining up for their slice of the state’s pie. But as Sen. Fischer said, this is an opportunity. She is right.
Also in her press release, she said, “Highways are different than other areas of government. It takes long-term planning and long-term financing for government to supply an adequate transportation system for its citizens.” Here, she is wrong. Highways are no different. All of our state’s government should have been conducted with long-term planning and long-term financing, and because it wasn’t, we have grown Nebraska’s government into a monster we can no longer afford to feed.
So, Sen. Fischer, I agree, this is an opportunity. Let’s all take a deep breath, be sensible, fund our state’s core priorities, and for crying out loud, let’s all get our foot out of our mouth, change socks and get to work!
You go to work and cut us out a state government we can afford and I’ll slice off another hunk of crow!