- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A Nebraska lawmaker has proposed adding two additional members to a commission that regulates railroads, landline telephones and pipelines, a measure that could have implications for the Keystone XL pipeline in the state.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion told a legislative committee Tuesday his bill would ensure rural residents are better represented by the Public Service Commission and decrease the number of Nebraska residents per commissioner by 150,000.

“The rural districts are quite large and quite sprawling,” he said.

The commission now has one representative from Lincoln and surrounding counties, one from Omaha and three from more rural areas. To create seven districts, Smith added another rural district, made Lincoln its own district and split Omaha in two, creating one district represented almost entirely by Democrats in the state Legislature and one represented primarily by Republicans. This would result in five conservative-leaning districts and two-liberal leaning ones.

Smith said he doesn’t see the bill as creating more seats for conservatives, and that it all depends on who runs for office and who gets elected. Unlike senators in Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature, commissioners run with party affiliations.

The bill, which would take effect Jan. 3, 2019, tasks Gov. Pete Ricketts with appointing commissioners from the newly created sixth and seventh districts -the more conservative side of Omaha and a large district containing the panhandle -to serve until the 2020 general election.

It could have implications for the Keystone XL pipeline because the commission must approve the pipeline’s route in Nebraska. The application process lasts about a year.

Smith pushed through legislation in 2012 that allowed the Nebraska Department of Environmental Equality, an agency overseen by the governor, to review the pipeline’s plans. Then-Gov. Dave Heineman approved the pipeline in 2013, but pipeline opponents prevented construction from proceeding with repeated legal challenges. TransCanada, the pipeline’s developer, decided shortly before the Obama administration rejected the project to pursue approval from the Public Service Commission instead.

The bill also slashes commissioners’ pay from a $75,000 salary to a per diem of $150 a day that’s not to exceed $22,500 a year and removes retirement and health benefits. It would permit commissioners to hold other jobs, which they’re not currently allowed to do.

The commission only met for 35 hours last year, and Nebraska can’t justify a full-time regulatory agency as the industries it regulates change, Smith said. For instance, the commission regulates landlines and taxi cabs but not cellphones or ride-sharing businesses like Uber and Lyft.

“The trend is for more competition and less regulation,” Smith said. “There just isn’t a need for a full-time regulatory agency anymore.”

Commissioners work five days a week helping the public, former Commissioner Anne Boyle said. Removing salaries would mean commissioners would have to be retired or independently wealthy, she said.

“It’s called the Nebraska Public Service Commission because we have to help the public when they have nowhere else to go,” Boyle said. “We don’t just sit idly by for 35 hours and just go home and say ‘OK, we’re done.’ It’s a big job.”

Sen. John Murante questioned how changing the number of commissioners and their salaries impacts public service they do. He pointed out Nebraska’s senators are paid $12,000 a year and members of its Board of Regents only receive expense reimbursements.

“What I’m having a tough time processing is how having a lower salary stops them from doing their job,” he said.


Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JMShumway

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