- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska zoos and aquariums would be exempt from state and local sales tax under a bill that gained strong support in a first vote of the Legislature, but some lawmakers worried that the projected loss of $2.67 million sales tax over two years would make it harder for lawmakers to deliver property tax relief this year.

The chief beneficiary of the proposal would be Omaha’s celebrated Henry Doorly Zoo, ranked first in the world by travel website Trip Advisor with some 1.7 million visitors a year. The Lincoln Children’s Zoo and Riverside Discovery Center in Scottsbluff also would benefit.

Lawmakers voted 33-5 Tuesday to advance the measure that would allow nationally-accredited zoos or aquariums to avoid charging sales taxes on memberships and admissions. The zoos would keep the percentage usually allotted to state and local governments.

Bill sponsor Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said the measure will grow tourism, the state’s third-largest industry.

“I think this is good tax policy to provide small strategic state investment to growing our economy, to grow our tourism industry and help these organizations continue to grow regional economies,” the bill’s sponsor Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said.

But opponents worried the bill would set a precedent for other unsustainable tax relief across the tourism industry.

“If we give it here, where does it stop?” North Platte Sen. Mike Groene said.

Groene called the measure a “feel-good bill” and said he sees no proof an exemption will bring more visitors to zoos or more revenue to the state.

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango said he cannot support a bill that will further stray from the concerns of rural Nebraskans.

“I don’t see the will of this body stepping up to take on the number one problem in the state of Nebraska and that’s property tax,” Hughes said.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha noted that mayors rarely support tax exemptions because it often takes financial support away from cities. But Gering, Scottsbluff, Lincoln and Omaha leaders have all thrown their support behind the bill.

Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said the measure is a way to keep the zoos at the top of their game.

“If the zoo loses its competitiveness, the state of Nebraska loses,” Nordquist said.

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The bill is LB419

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