April 1, 2015

Debate on raising gas tax underway at Unicameral (AUDIO)

LegislatureState lawmakers have begun debate on raising the gas tax to pay for road and bridge construction.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion told colleagues during legislative debate Tuesday it’s time to raise the gas tax again.

“But I do want to have this discussion with you today, colleagues, and it needs to be a discussion,” Smith stated. “This is not a sound bite issue and many would like to reduce it to sound bites.”

Smith said Nebraska last raised the gas tax 20 years ago and the revenue it generates has failed to keep up with the infrastructure needs of the state, especially as cars have become more fuel efficient, needing less gas, generating less revenue.

LB 610 would raise the tax driver’s pay at the pump six cents over a four-year period. The new rate would total 31.6 cents a gallon. The increase would raise an extra $19 million a year for road and bridge repair and construction.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion opposes the increase, arguing that the legislature hasn’t consider a new tax cut in three years.

“Can you imagine going three years and telling the overtaxed people of our state, sorry, we just can’t cut your taxes?” Kintner said. “And, then, to pour a little salt in the wound, we’re going to raise your taxes.”

The legislature debated the bill during the afternoon session. More debate is scheduled.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

Winter weather provides harsh test for elderly drivers

JackknifedNebraska’s population is among the nation’s oldest and some motorists continue to drive on the state’s roads well into their 90s, which for some, may pose a risk to themselves and others.

Nick Jarmusz, at AAA, says family members need to be direct with their elders when safety is clearly becoming an issue.

“It’s important for families to remember that the issue isn’t necessarily driving itself,” Jarmusz says. “The issue is about mobility and independence.”

Older drivers themselves can often be the best judges of when it’s time to give up the keys, knowing their personal challenges with vision, hearing, mobility, reaction times and more.

“Self-assessment is a critical part to this,” Jarmusz says. “We actually have a lot of resources on the topic for senior drivers at a website we’ve set up. The site, www.aaa.com, includes suggestions for having that difficult talk with an older driver.

“We recommend families avoid the intervention-style or anything that can come across as overly confrontational and make elderly relatives feel like they’re being backed into a corner or being talked down to,” he says.

While the conversation may be uncomfortable, it should be driven by compassion and a concern for everyone’s health and safety.

“It doesn’t have to be a binary discussion, you know, you either have your keys and are driving or you’re not,” Jarmusz says. “There’s a lot of space in between there to self-regulate or to set up parameters for when it is and is not acceptable to drive.”

A national AAA survey found nearly 90% of motorists who are 65 years old and older suffer from health issues that may affect driving safely.

A U.S. Census Bureau report says nearly 14% of Nebraska’s population is at least 65 years old, ranking the state 11th oldest in the nation. Florida tops the list.


Gov. Ricketts searches for NDOR director; opposes gas tax hike

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts says he is not in favor of increasing the gas tax.

Many states are poised to take advantage of a drop in gas prices by increasing the state’s take.

Ricketts says the state needs to operate on what it has.

“I want to work with the money that we have available right now in the Department of Roads,” Ricketts tells Nebraska Radio Network affiliate WNAX. “A few years ago, we passed LB 84, thanks to Sen. Deb Fischer, which budgets a quarter cent of the sales tax to roads funding. I think that’s an adult way to try and budget for our roads funding and this is one of the reasons why we want to do a national job search to bring in somebody who can help us think differently about how we do operations, how we do financing, how we work with the federal government.”

Ricketts has announced a national search for a permanent director to lead the Nebraska Department of Roads. State Engineer Randy Peter serves as acting director.

Ricketts says the new director will be faced with many challenges, including how to help cities and counties improve roads and bridges.

Ricketts says he has fielded numerous complaints from county officials about bridges.

“Certainly that’s one of the issues we want to work with at the Department of Roads with the counties,” according to Ricketts, “Are there things we can do to be more creative in writing the specifications for those bridges that will allow counties to stretch their dollars farther?”

Ricketts has concluded national searches to fill the top positions for Corrections, Economic Development, and Health and Human Services.

The Greater Omaha Chamber Foundation, with statewide financial support, has hired Ted Ford Webb of Ford Webb Associates of Concern, MA to assist in the search. The Ricketts Administration has used Webb before.

Finalists identified by the firm will be forwarded to Governor Ricketts and his Chief of Staff, Matt Miltenberger, for interviews.

Donors who contribute to the search process will be disclosed after the conclusion of the search, according to the governor’s office.

Jerry Oster, WNAX, contributed to this story.

Push to repeal motorcycle helmet law comes as 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally approaches

Main Street, Sturgis, South Dakota/Photo courtesy of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Main Street, Sturgis, South Dakota/Photo courtesy of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Supporters of an effort to repeal the state mandatory motorcycle helmet law claim Nebraska loses millions of tourism dollars, because of its helmet law.

They say the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota makes this the perfect year to repeal the law.

Opponents counter the money reaped cannot replace the lives lost.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, who has unsuccessfully championed the helmet repeal in the past, has returned with LB 31, which would eliminate the mandate that motorcyclists wear helmets while riding in Nebraska.

Bloomfield tells the legislature’s Transportation Committee he has two goals in sponsoring the bill.

“First would be to open our borders to hundreds and thousands of people who, for one primary reason, choose to avoid our beautiful state and take their millions of dollars elsewhere,” Bloomfield says. “That reason being because they wish to have the right to ride without a helmet.”

Bloomfield’s second goal is to give Nebraskans the right to decide whether to wear a helmet or not.

Scott Hoffman supports Bloomfield’s bill. He tells committee members that thousands of motorcyclists heading each year to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally by-pass Nebraska and its scenic route to the rally simply because the state mandates they wear helmets.

“They’re expecting 700,000 riders this year,” Lange says of the rally. “It could be the largest ever and, ironically, it will be the 75th anniversary. What better way to celebrate it than with a helmet repeal?”

Lange contends the mandatory helmet law costs Nebraska tens of millions of dollars annually as motorcyclists avoid the state as they travel to the rally.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will be held August 3rd through the 9th this year, the 75th year it has been held in Sturgis, South Dakota, just north of the Black Hills.

Opponents of the repeal argue this isn’t a financial decision.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Nicholas Worrell tells the committee repeal would be dangerous.

“Helmet laws work,” Worrell testifies. “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 86% of riders wear helmets in states with a universal helmet law while only 55% do in states without such laws.”

According to federal statistics, 5,000 motorcyclists died nationwide in 2012, with 93,000 suffering injuries. Worrell says 10 times as many motorcyclists die in states without a helmet law than in those with a helmet law.

While Worrell provided figures for the committee to consider, a motorcyclist permanently disabled in a motorcycle wreck made an emotional plea to lawmakers to keep the mandate in place.

Patrick Lange survived the motorcycle wreck, but his wife didn’t. Neither were wearing helmets, something Lange says regrets bitterly.

“We have people testify how much money Nebraska is losing out on,” Lange says. “My step-son lost something money can never ever replace, because his step-dad and his mommy made a decision on their own not to put a helmet on.”

Lange says he spent 44 days in an intensive care unit and longer in a coma. He says the accident has left him legally, permanently disabled.

The committee will decide whether to advance the bill to the full legislature for debate.

Bid farewell to gas prices under $2 a gallon

gas-pump-111Gasoline prices are climbing in Nebraska after many weeks of falling.

Gail Weinholzer, at AAA-Nebraska, says a glut of crude oil is prompting some refineries to shut down and do maintenance work, plus, there is a labor dispute that started over the weekend that’s impacting about one in every ten U.S. refineries.

“After 123 days of consecutive decline, we finally hit the bottom price and started to bounce back up a little bit,” Weinholzer says.

The statewide average is now at $2.05 for a gallon of gas, up a dime in the past week. The national average is $2.11. Lincoln has Nebraska’s cheapest gas at $2.01 a gallon while it’s most expensive in Kearney at $2.19.

Weinholzer says it’s likely pump prices will keep climbing.

“They will continue to rise further, not too substantially we hope,” she says. “I wouldn’t expect numbers to get near the $3 mark but certainly back into the mid-$2s is within reason and within reach over the next couple of weeks.”

Some Nebraska retailers were selling ethanol blends in the $1.90s as recently as last week. A year ago, gas prices in Nebraska were retailing at $3.21 a gallon.