Omaha World Herald. March 8, 2018
Douglas county Board needs to be more responsible in approving tourism-promotion dollars
In Nebraska, the state has given county governments the power to distribute local funds to promote tourism. Common sense says those monies should be directed toward one purpose — to encourage tourism.
That requirement is intended to ensure government accountability.
But it's hard to see how that requirement was met recently by the Douglas County Board when it approved a $50,000 tourism expenditure that the board says salutes the recent dedication of the USS Omaha.
The launching of that littoral ship, the latest naval vessel to be named after Omaha, was certainly worthy of celebration by local officials and citizens.
But outside of Omaha and the naval community in San Diego, few Americans are going to have any awareness of the USS Omaha, and it's difficult to argue that Omaha can see an increase in tourism relating to the ship.
Yet the County Board has voted 5-1, with board member Jim Cavanaugh voting no, to approve a resolution from Board Member Mary Ann Borgeson to give $50,000 in locally generated tourism-promotion funds for the celebration of the ship.
As if that weren't enough, the description of exactly how the $50,000 was to be used has been unclear and repeatedly changing.
Did the funds help pay for a celebratory party by the group Heritage Services? Or did they help pay for a video by Nebraska Public Television about the USS Omaha? Or did they go toward NET's general operations to do stories about Nebraska? All three explanations have been offered.
Board members Clare Duda and Mike Boyle stressed that the money came from hotel-motel taxes, not property taxes.
And Borgeson emphasized the tourism angle. "Overall, the big broad view of this at the 30,000-foot level is you have a U.S. Navy vessel being named for our community, " she said. "That's something we should not only be proud of, but we should promote."
But it's hard to see how the existence of a Navy vessel can translate into hordes of tourists wanting to visit its namesake city.
Several years ago, the Nebraska Legislature revamped state tourism policy, to impose sensible parameters on how county governments dole out local tourism-promotion funds.
That message has failed to reach the majority on the Douglas County Board, given their actions and wobbly rationales in this matter.
So far the Douglas County Board appears to be generous with public dollars — but stingy with its explanations.
The Grand Island Independent. March 9, 2018.
Why wait any longer? Collect taxes
The Nebraska Legislature is again debating LB44, a bill that would help the state collect more online sales tax revenue.
Bills must be passed three times before they advance to the governor for final approval. A year ago, the bill was passed on its first vote, but was delayed because a number of the bill's supporters were absent on the day of the second vote.
LB44 would require online retailers to send their customers statements on their total taxable purchases for the year unless they collect Nebraska sales tax themselves. They would also be required to send that same information to the Nebraska Department of Revenue.
The state asks its residents to self-report their online purchases and pay the sales taxes along with their income taxes, but few people actually do this. If they have the total they need to report and they know the state also has that total, Nebraska will begin collecting a lot more of the sales taxes it is owed.
Right now, everyone knows they can just make their big purchases online and avoid sales taxes. That puts local businesses at a disadvantage as local customers check out their prices and then go home to find the best buy online without being taxed.
The Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce is supporting LB44. Executive Director Cindy Johnson released a statement this week saying, "It evens the playing field for brick-and-mortar stores with online retailers such as Amazon."
It doesn't make sense that our state requires our local merchants to collect sales tax, but doesn't require the same thing of online merchants, most of which don't even have a brick-and-mortar presence in Nebraska.
This year's Legislature has advanced the bill to a third and final vote with even more support than it received during the 2017 legislative session. It was passed Tuesday with a 34-7 vote after supporters overcame a filibuster, compared to the 28-13 first vote last year.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has opposed the bill and threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk. It will take 30 votes to override a veto and it appears that the bill has more than enough support.
A year ago it was estimated that the state was losing out on $30 million to $40 million each year in sales taxes due to online purchases. That total is probably higher this year.
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The state asks its residents to self-report their online purchases and pay the sales taxes along with their income taxes, but few people actually do this.
Everyone knows they can just make their big purchases online and avoid sales taxes. That puts our local businesses at a disadvantage as local customers check out their prices and then go home to find the best buy online without being taxed.
The bill's opponents have criticized it as creating burdensome red tape for businesses that make sales online, but Amazon has been collecting Nebraska sales tax for a year and technology should be sufficient that other retailers could do the same thing or at least keep records of Nebraska sales and issue annual statements to their customers.
State government has been talking about finding a way to collect these sales taxes for years. It's time that the Legislature stop doing without the tax revenue and begin requiring online merchants to do the same thing that main street businesses have always had to do.
As The Independent said in an editorial last April, the Legislature should pass this bill and, if necessary, override a veto from the governor.
Lincoln Journal Star. March 9, 2018
Online sales tax bill would aid retailers
Governing in the digital age brings a modern twist on "The Tortoise and the Hare."
The internet advances far more rapidly than lawmakers, despite their best efforts, can regulate it. Unlike the fable, however, the tortoise (legislative bodies) must inevitably stop for a rest while the hare (technology) only accelerates and grows its lead.
Perhaps nowhere is that truer than ecommerce, where a 25-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision remains the applicable precedent, limiting states to collect sales taxes only from businesses that maintain a physical presence - known as nexus - within their borders.
Nebraska, however, is on the cusp of passing a bill that would authorize the collection of these taxes, which are already owed to the state, after Syracuse Sen. Dan Watermeier's LB44 broke a filibuster and advanced onto the final round of consideration. Given the state's budget shortfall - and the revenue this bill would bring into state coffers - its passage is sorely needed.
Again, this measure isn't a tax hike. These taxes are already due to the state, which is estimated to gain between $30 million and $40 million in revenue annually. Amazon's voluntary decision to collect and submit these taxes generates a similar amount.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has expressed concern with passing a bill before the Supreme Court weighs in on a challenge to the aforementioned ruling. That caution is understandable, given the case's complexity. But LB44 has a trigger in it, meaning that if this practice were found to be unconstitutional, the law would be stricken and Nebraska wouldn't have an unconstitutional law on the books - a vital provision.
If the Supreme Court permits states to collect sales taxes on transactions caused by business without nexus, the state must be ready to capture revenue it has long been barred from receiving. The need in Nebraska is simply too great to wait.
Brick-and-mortar retailers are at a competitive disadvantage. Business Insider noted in December that major chains announced more than 8,000 store closures nationwide - and that doesn't consider mom-and-pop businesses. Nebraska is by no means exempt from this trend.
Business owners, municipal governments, chambers of commerce and other trade groups paraded into LB44's committee hearing last January. They shared stories of the harm this taxation disparity had caused their businesses and communities. One noted that sales tax revenue generated under this proposal could help curb Nebraska's over-reliance on property taxes.
A broad, bipartisan coalition, consisting of a veto-proof majority of 35 senators, voted in favour of this bill earlier this week. We hope they stick to their guns and back this measure as final-round debate and a possible veto loom.
Passing LB44, pending the upcoming Supreme Court decision, would give the law a rare victory in its race to catch up with technology.
Kearney Hub. March 6, 2018
'Elephant" left out, archway still going
Nearly 20 years ago, as promoters planned the construction of The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, artists sketched out the series of vignettes, including one titled, "Seeing the Elephant," that would tell visitors the history of the United States' westward expansion.
The great human migration was a defining theme of U.S. history in the 19th century as millions of Americans travelled west along the California, Mormon and Oregon trails seeking wealth, religious freedom or the chance to settle the nation's prairies and mountainous regions from the Mississippi River to the West Coast.
Today, almost 18 years since The Archway opened over Interstate 80 near Kearney, visitors can view vignettes depicting settlers driving ox-drawn wagons along the Platte River Road. Continuing through the exhibits, there are depictions of vast buffalo herds, the sacrifices and perils that travellers endured, and the triumphs of those who made it.
Of the millions who travelled west from the 1840s to 1890s, there were many who succumbed to sickness, and there were travellers who expended all their resources and energy and were forced to give up. According to trail lore, these failed travellers had "seen the elephant," and could no longer continue.
Archway promoters had planned the vignette, "Seeing the Elephant," to illustrate the tremendous risks and losses that travellers endured along the Great Platte River Road. Historians tell us that "seeing the elephant" became an Americanism that referred to gaining experience at a significant expense.
Interestingly, there is no "Seeing the Elephant" vignette in The Archway. Planners gave up on the scene when, during construction of the $60 million attraction, they needed to save money.
During The Archway's history, there were moments when supporters came close to seeing the elephant.
One of those times was in 2013 when The Archway declared bankruptcy. It was rescued when private donors raised $140,000 to repay vendors and bondholders of the embattled attraction.
Today, The Great Platte River Road Archway Foundation owns the facility, and the Kearney Visitors Bureau and city of Kearney provide monetary and management support. Operating expenses have been whittled down, along with a list of deferred maintenance tasks.
This year, as supporters and managers of The Archway declared its first profit since opening in 2000, there were observers in Kearney and across Nebraska, no doubt, who never could have imagined it was possible to turn a profit.
The margin, at about 3 per cent, certainly is thin, but it's keeping the elephants out of sight.