Pipeline, tax cut, horseracing bills advance

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March 28, 2012 - 7:00pm

Measures permitting an expedited review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, an income tax cut, and expanded betting on horseracing are advancing in the Legislature.

Last November, the Legislature passed two bills dealing with oil pipelines. One of them said that for any pipelines for which permits had already been applied, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality could go ahead, hire a consultant, and examine any proposed route. The other bill said that for future pipeline applications, the Public Service Commission would decide.

The idea was to speed up an up-or-down decision on a new route that pipeline company TransCanada promised for its proposed Keystone XL pipeline. In return for the expedited procedure, the company promised to change its proposed route the Sandhills, which had roused fierce opposition over environmental risks.

But then Congress passed legislation ordering speeded-up decisionmaking at the federal level, and the Obama Adminstration rejected the Keystone XL application. TransCanada has said it will reapply soon, and meanwhile, wants Nebraska to stick to an expedited review schedule through the Department of Environmental Quality, rather than waiting longer for the Public Service Commission. Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala supported the bill, which would extend DEQ's authority to any application filed by Jan. 1, 2013. "I think this is right thing to do for the state of Nebraska, I think it is the right thing to do for our nation, and I think it gives anyone the same opportunities to bring a pipeline to and through the state of Nebraska. So it's important that Nebraska keep its word," he said.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said TransCanada had testified before Congress in December, urging the very speedup in federal decisionmaking that eventually led to its application being rejected. And Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton said she was angry about the situation. "TransCanada is not a victim here, unless one would say they were a victim of their own devices. So here we are today and the games continue. To be quite honest I am very angry that all of the hard work that we put into for and during the special session has been thrown under the bus by political games and lobby efforts being played out in Washington, D.C.," she declared.

Sen. Leroy Louden of Ellsworth predicted there would be many more pipelines, not only to transport oil from the tar sands of Canada, but also from the Bakken shale oil fields of North Dakota. And he said using pipelines would be far safer than trucks or trains. "If you bring a hundred-car tank-car train down one of those tracks and you drop 35 cars of crude oil off on the ground, you're going to have a lot bigger mess than any oil pipeline you've ever thought of in your life," said Louden.

Haar cited testimony from the public hearing on the bill at which TransCanada officials predicted no other company would try to use the expedited review process. Haar said that means the bill would probably run afoul of the state constitution's prohibition of "special laws" granting any corporation exclusive privileges. And he predicted the law giving jurisdiction to the Public Service Commission, LB1, would be found to apply. "I believe this is special legislation that will make it unconstitutional. I believe it will be challenged in court. But LB1 is the law right now. If the challenge goes forward and is successful, LB1 will still be the law of Nebraska and we will have a place at the table," he said.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, who brokered the compromise with TransCanada in the special session last November, said Haar's point needs to be taken seriously, suggesting the bill might be amended on the next round of consideration. After less than two hours of debate, senators then voted 33-2 to give the bill first-round approval.

On another matter, lawmakers gave second-round approval to a bill that would allow betting at horseracing tracks on so-called "historic horseracing -- videos of previously-run races, with identifying information removed.

Supporters say the measure will help preserve the industry by financing a new track in Lincoln, opponents call it expanded gambling.

The vote in favor of the bill was 26-18, enough to move it to a final vote but not enough to survive a possible veto. Governor Dave Heineman has not indicated whether or not he would veto the bill, but has opposed expanded gambling in the past and vetoed a different horseracing bill last year.

And lawmakers voted second-round approval to a bill cutting income taxes. The legislation is a scaled-down version of tax cuts proposed by the governor. Supporters have said it's important to let taxpayers keep more of their own money.

The brief debate on the bill Thursday was monopolized by opponents, who complained that it would deprive the state of revenue needed for schools and other purposes. Among them was Sen. Russ Karpicek of Wilber. "We can all go home and say we gave a tax rebate that will amount to what did we say, not even $5 a month. Well, $5 a month is better than nothing, I'll give you that," he said. "But what is it going to cost us in the long run? How much are we going to have to pay when we don't fund some of the things that we are supposed to be funding, and how much is it going to cost us in property taxes because the schools aren't getting as much as they were promised to get?"

The Revenue Department says the bill will save a family of four with income of $50,000 about $54 in 2014. It was advanced on a vote of 36-7.

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