Columbus Area Chamber members and staff spent two days in Lincoln last week, meeting with legislators, leaders and other Chamber reps from across the state.
Once again we attended the State Chamber annual meeting and legislative caucus. It is always an opportunity to catch up on the work being done by the Unicameral and this year we also got some insight into federal issues.
On the statewide level, Speaker Scheer and two key committee chairs participated on a panel. The speaker said the Unicameral is off to a smoother start than two years ago, which he attributes simply to more trusting relationships among the Senators.
He said term limits have increased the urgency felt by individual senators, which has hurt their ability to look at changes gradually. One other big change he lifted up was the shift of population to metro areas. As he put it, Omaha and Lincoln can now get whatever they want if they work together. Hopefully, all of the senators work toward solutions that benefit the entire state, but that is still a fact that bears watching in greater Nebraska.
Sen. Scheer described our state’s tax challenge as a function of geography: Population is not distributed equally across a big geographic area. That statement alone is a reason for Nebraska to seek statewide solutions.
John Stinner, appropriations chair, told the group that any bill with a funding request from the general fund is a “non-starter” given the state’s budget situation. He also echoed the theme of the rural-urban dynamic in the body, pointing out that he is one of only six western Senators who now represent approximately half the square miles of the state.
Revenue Vice-Chair/ Sen. Curt Friesen also identified rural population as creating an imbalance in the state’s education and transportation infrastructure. He also raised the slowing ag economy as a driver in the state’s revenue challenges.
All three Senators mentioned that current sales tax exemptions may be in serious jeopardy this session. Stinner pointed out that the service industry now makes up 70 percent of our state’s economy, which means those exemptions now cost us more comparatively than they did when they were passed. The State Chamber is opposed to that move, calling it a “tax shift,” not tax relief. The Columbus Area Chamber hasn’t yet taken a position on any of the tax reform bills this session, but we also have historically not supported efforts to simply tax one group more to give relief to a different group. I think it is apparent that the voice of business needs to be heard in this debate and our Legislative Committee is proud to represent that voice in this session.
Certainly, the State Chamber is watching closely and taking action diligently in this legislative session at the state level. Both the state and local chambers are working to make this a business-friendly state and our Legislative Committee will meet at 2 p.m. this Thursday at the Chamber office. We will take part in the State Chamber conference call and discuss issues of local interest. I encourage any Chamber member to get involved - this is important work!
K.C. Belitz is the outgoing president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.