Lincoln mayor may put sales tax hike on November ballot

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler may ask Lincolnites to increase the city sales tax rate during the November general election and perhaps lower the property or wheel tax rates in exchange.

There’s been buzz around Lincoln about the possibility of putting a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot to fund infrastructure and safety, and on Monday the Beutler administration acknowledged the possibility of a November vote. The mayor floated the idea of a tax increase at a recent neighborhood meeting in University Place.

Mayor Chris Beutler

His chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, said in an email response to an inquiry about Beutler’s recent comments that he is considering asking the Lincoln City Council to schedule an election for a sales tax increase. The city sales tax could go up a quarter- to half-cent under state law, and at least 85 percent of the money would have to be used for infrastructure.

“The city is not investing enough in new road construction and rehabilitation and maintenance of existing roads,” Hoppe wrote. “We are talking with groups across the community to determine if a need exists and whether a sales tax increase would be an acceptable means of solving our community’s infrastructure challenges.”

In 2012, lawmakers passed legislation allowing cities to increase their sales tax rates up to a half-cent. Under the law, cities can increase sales tax rates a half-cent, up to a maximum of 2 cents on the dollar (7.5 cents total, including the state sales tax), with the approval of a super-majority of the local governing board and a vote of the people.

The powerful and filibuster-prone Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers tried in vain last session to get the law repealed, saying sales taxes are regressive and most hurt poor people.

Hoppe said the Beutler administration strongly believes any proposal put before voters must represent a “fairly solid public consensus on the need and the items funded.”

“If that consensus cannot be achieved, I doubt whether we will put the proposal up for a vote,” he said.

He also said the mayor feels strongly that if he proceeds with a sales tax increase vote, other taxes should be reduced as part of the package

“The sales tax is a much broader based tax than the property tax or the wheel tax,” Hoppe said. “For instance, those people who live outside the city limits but drive our roads every day do not pay the wheel tax. Substituting a sales tax for some portion of the property tax and/or wheel tax could be a fairer way of paying for our streets.”

But he said nothing has been decided and a “long public discussion” will occur before a decision is made.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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