- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

Omaha World-Herald. Oct. 9, 2015

Food truck tax question one of fairness.

If you want pizza, you have many choices. Chicago-style or New York? Pepperoni or sausage? Green peppers or mushrooms?

And one more:

Restaurant or truck?

More than 50 food trucks now hold Douglas County permits, three times the number of just five years ago. They’ve brought additional spice to the city, a cool vibe, options for dining, more fun.

They’ve also brought a complication. Call it a growing pain.

As The World-Herald’s Sarah Baker Hansen reported this week, some Old Market business owners are raising concerns over the effect food trucks might have on the neighborhood’s restaurants. They are bothered that the trucks park in metered spaces and aren’t covered by Omaha’s restaurant tax.

Many food truck operators plug downtown parking meters, which city attorneys say is legal as long as the truck isn’t too large, doesn’t obstruct traffic and doesn’t stay at the meter too long. City officials also say they are reviewing an ordinance that bans the sale of merchandise from a parked vehicle for more than 30 minutes, working on whether food qualifies as “merchandise.”

And while the parked trucks may be seen as a problem in some areas, they’re not seen that way everywhere. There are other neighborhoods that welcome them. Banning a type of legitimate business from one part of city really doesn’t seem fair.

The good news is, there’s an acknowledgment that these questions should be discussed. Melissa Glenn, manager of innovative strategy and retention for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, told Hansen: “Because it’s really starting to take hold, it’s time to have a pointed conversation. I think the food truck owners and vendors are willing to have that conversation.”

When it comes to the restaurant tax conversation, city officials should focus on keeping the playing field level for all.

As defined in Omaha ordinances, “restaurant” means “any place that is kept, used, maintained, advertised, or held out to the public as a place where food is prepared and sold for immediate consumption either on the premises or elsewhere.” That would seem to apply to the trucks.

But while that legal definition applies to “cafes, grills, bistros, delicatessens, coffee shops, bakeries, lunch counters, sandwich stands and concession stands,” among others, it does not include “push carts, lunch wagons, ice cream trucks, or other mobile facilities from which food ready for consumption is sold.”

When the restaurant tax went into effect, there weren’t many food trucks in Omaha. That’s obviously changed. While there’s been talk about abolishing the restaurant tax, that hasn’t happened.

For now, the mayor and City Council should examine the application of the restaurant tax from a perspective of even-handedness.

That slice of sausage-and-mushroom pizza tastes just as good whether it’s brought to your indoor table or handed to you through a truck window.

In fairness, the restaurant tax should apply equally to both.

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The Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Oct. 6, 2015

Transportation.

Without a sense of urgency, the Heartland Expressway will languish indefinitely.

At the Lied Scottsbluff Public Library on Monday, a Nebraska legislative committee listened to varied testimony during a hearing on transportation. The hearing was intended to discuss Nebraska’s state and local roads system as well as the Nebraska expressway system. Much of the discussion focused on the Heartland Expressway. One testifier, Mark Masterton, vice chairman of the Heartland Expressway Association and chairman of the Scotts Bluff County Commissioners, testified that he’s been working on the Heartland Expressway project since 1984.

The four-lane expressway project would connect to a larger four-lane highway corridor that would run from Mexico to Canada. Nebraska currently has about 73 miles of four-lane expressway in about 195 miles remaining. By 2017 we should have about 99 miles done on the route. The currently scheduled construction from Alliance to the L62a junction on Highway 385 will add approximately 22 miles. The connecting pieces of Minatare to Highway 385 (about 20 miles) and Chadron to the South Dakota line, where the highway is currently four lanes (about 20 miles) seem like logical next steps for the future, according to Masterton.

He also noted that over 100,000 visitors a year stop at the Museum of the Fur Trade, 410,000 at Fort Robinson, and 480,000 at Chadron State Park, not to mention the added motorcycle traffic on the roads that run north and south through the Panhandle during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally every year the first part of August.

“This highway is essential for our well-being on this side of the state,” Masterton said.

The hearing also included testimony from local engineers and contractors, state senators, and officials with the Nebraska Department of Roads, among others. And it might come as no surprise to our readers who have been following this story, but the project isn’t remotely close to completion. Western Nebraskans have learned to trust a timeline on the Heartland Expressway about as much as they trust a 30-day weather forecast. One completion date that the hearing audience heard was 2024. Masterton seemed to hope that couldn’t be right. He said by then he’ll have been discussing this project for 40 years.

The primary challenge for the project is funding. In 2012, the Star-Herald reported the expressway, located between Limon, Colorado, and Rapid City, South Dakota, and connects to I-25 in Wyoming, would cost $500 million to complete. On Monday, Sen. John Stinner of Gering said 84 miles of it would cost $125 million.

Although he correctly pointed out that it is an investment in a vital piece of a much-needed corridor, what’s more important is the point he made about the sense of urgency. Without this expressway becoming a priority the funds, even if earmarked for the project, can easily be redirected to more immediate needs. It’s not enough that we had both mayors from Scottsbluff and Gering highlighting the proposed economic benefits. Or that more than one testifier brought up the necessity of fighting the dire rural flight situation. A plan with a definite timeline needs to be put in place and it needs to be made an absolute priority before anything will get done.

Western Nebraskans are tired of talk about this project. It’s time for real action. The four-lane highway would be safer, it would enhance transportation and would aid in economic development. Like we heard at the hearing, we need a sense of purpose and the state needs to take a more aggressive approach. If Sen. Stinner’s state infrastructure bank plan could help to speed things up, then we’re all for it.

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The Kearney Hub. Oct 7, 2015

Tax reform more urgent as ConAgra exits Omaha

f the resounding pleas for tax relief from Nebraska farmers, whose property bears the bulk of school support and many other governmental costs, hasn’t gotten our state leaders’ attention, then perhaps the move of ConAgra’s headquarters from downtown Omaha will. Nebraskans are looking for tax relief, and so are the companies doing business here.

The food giant - one of five Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Omaha - is moving its head offices to Chicago, where efficiencies and a host of incentives helped ice the decision.

Nebraska’s business-minded Gov. Pete Ricketts has issued a call for a serious review of tax rates and incentive programs to ensure Nebraska remains competitive. We can’t help but believe that when companies are recruited to move or expand into Nebraska, some serious reservations arise about property taxes.

The state’s tax and incentive situation also comes up in trade talks. Ricketts has led a couple of missions overseas to promote Nebraska’s investment opportunities, but we get downgraded on the desirability scale because of our high taxes.

While lawmakers and political leaders discuss reforms this year, we hope they also look closely at how Nebraska doles out incentives.

Jim Vokal, CEO of the Platte Institute for Economic Research, reacted to ConAgra’s relocation announcement on Thursday by complaining that, “For too long, Nebraska has played the special interest tax break game, and today we have lost to a higher bidder in Illinois.”

The task that faces Nebraska lawmakers is difficult, and it’s complicated by the entrenchment of our state’s system of incentives and tax exemptions.

Policies and ideas that were born years ago to promote growth in agriculture and on main street now may be working against Nebraskans.

Although change inevitably inspires resistance, most Nebraskans accept that something must be done, and our unified attitude should carry over as our state tackles its property tax problems and updates its business incentives.

____

The Lincoln Journal Star. Oct. 7, 2015.

Congrats to Airport Authority.

The Lincoln Airport Authority’s successful management of its industrial park is pumping ever-increasing energy into the local economy.

That’s a plus for local taxpayers that deserves more recognition.

In some communities, local taxpayers help subsidize the airport. In Lincoln, that sort of tax is only a distant memory. The authority has not dipped into the taxpayer’s pockets since the mid-1980s.

As Matt Olberding, the Journal Star’s assistant business editor, reported, airport operations brought in nearly $13 million in the past fiscal year, blowing past the previous record, which was set only a year ago, by $1.8 million.

The authority and airport staff have taken an increasingly active role in recent years in developing its 1,000 acres for commercial and industrial use.

Those steps included annexing several hundred acres into the city limits, changing the zoning from agricultural to industrial and adding infrastructure. The Lincoln Electric System, for example, buried an overhead power line. Sewer and water lines were added. Northwest 38th Street was extended.

Last year, the authority budgeted about $40 million for construction projects so its tenants could expand their operations.

That means more jobs at places like Hexagon Lincoln, which manufactures high-strength composite tanks. Demand for the tanks has soared in the natural gas boom.

The authority also has invested millions in infrastructure upgrades for 350 acres at the north side of its property, which is served by both BNSF and Union Pacific.

With the improvements came a new name - LNK Enterprise Park - and a new logo displaying a plane, truck and train, drawing attention to the park’s ideal proximity to highways, major rail lines and the Capital City’s airport.

Executive Director David Haring predicted that industrial park revenue will continue increasing for several years.

The airport has struggled for years to maintain airline passenger totals. The past two years, however, it has managed to post consecutive increases of 5 percent and 2 percent. So far this year, passenger totals are up about 15 percent through August, primarily because of a new Delta flight to Atlanta.

Airport Authority board member Jim Lauerman once joked that the authority had a public profile below that of the noxious weed board.

People should take notice now, however, as the number of jobs at LNK Enterprise Park continues to climb. The authority has become an important part of the community’s strategy for growing its economy.

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