- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A lawmaker known as a tax-cutting fiscal conservative urged his colleagues Friday to pass a fuel-tax increase to help repair Nebraska’s aging roads and bridges.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion argued that the phased-in, 6-cent-per-gallon increase would help maintain roads for farmers, truckers and businesses.

“Roads infrastructure supports the commerce of our state and the careers and livelihoods of our citizens,” said Smith, a Republican who serves as state head of the conservative American Legislature Exchange Council.

The proposal would raise Nebraska’s gas tax to 31.6 cents per gallon. The full tax would generate an additional $25 million annually for the state and $51 million for cities and counties.

Smith said he’d rather see the state impose a “user fee” rather than tapping the state’s general fund or issuing bonds to promote road construction. The tax would increase by 1.5 cents annually over four years.

Nebraska’s gas was the 26th most expensive nationally because of its taxes and fees as of Jan. 1, according to the American Petroleum Institute. On Sunday, the state’s gas tax fell behind neighboring Iowa’s for the first time in decades after Iowa’s new 32-cent gas tax went into effect.

Pawnee County Commissioner Dennis Schaardt said the county has 266 bridges, and 42 need to be replaced. The county has budgeted $500,000 a year for $10.5 million worth of projects.

“To replace all of the bridges that we have right now, it would take 83 years,” Schaardt said. “We think this (bill) is a great program to get a little more money down to us, the local people.”

Nebraska’s share of Federal Highway Trust money has fallen faster than the national average in the five-year period that ended in 2013, the last year for which numbers were available. The state saw a 5.2 percent drop while funding for all states fell by 3.5 percent, according to an analysis last month by The Associated Press.

Opponents said the bill would undermine recent efforts by lawmakers to cut taxes.

“This tax does not just affect Nebraskans at the pump, but it will also take a toll on goods and services throughout the state,” said Matt Litt, state director of Americans for Prosperity Nebraska. “We can’t afford more tax dollars taken out of our wallets.”

John Dilsaver, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Petroleum Marketers Association, said lawmakers should instead consider tapping the state’s cash reserve fund to pay for roads or look at other taxes.

Dilsaver said Nebraska could also find construction money by running the Department of Roads more efficiently. Gov. Pete Ricketts has launched a national search for a state roads director.

Smith said cost-cutting won’t be enough to cover the expense.

“Unless the next road director’s name is Houdini, it’s not going to work,” he said.

Nebraska has more than 100,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges, mostly owned by counties and cities. Roughly 10,000 miles of road and 3,500 bridges belong to the state.

The state ranked seventh nationally last year in the percentage of bridges that were considered structurally deficient, according to a July report by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C. The state had 14,595 bridges, and about 19 percent had structural deficiencies.

The bridges are generally considered safe but might have size and weight restrictions that prevent trucks, farm machinery and other large vehicles from crossing.

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The bill is LB610

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