Gas pump

Nebraska lawmakers voted to increase the state's gas tax by 6 cents per gallon over four years.

Without a vote to spare, the Legislature on Thursday overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of legislation that would gradually increase the state gas tax by 6 cents a gallon over a four-year period.

It was the first veto showdown between the governor and the Legislature, with more yet to come.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha supplied the final dramatic vote needed to reach the 30-vote threshold required to override a gubernatorial veto.

The motion to override, offered by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, prevailed on a 30-16 count when Mello changed from "not voting" to voting yes moments before the final count was announced.

Reacting shortly after the Legislature voted, Ricketts said the tax hike "will not only hurt Nebraska's hard-working families, but it will only make it more difficult to grow Nebraska because of our state's burdensome tax climate."

The debate preceding the vote was framed in terms of respectful disagreement rather than conducted with any personal animosity or political rancor.

Overriding a governor's wishes is "one of the toughest votes you will make," Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha told his colleagues, 18 of whom are freshman lawmakers.

Thirty-five of the nonpartisan senators are registered Republicans as is Ricketts, who was elected in November.

Even though he supported Ricketts in the election and respects the new governor, Sen. John Stinner of Gering said, "There are times when we are not going to agree."

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, another registered Republican, said the issue is not the governor.

"This is not a vote for or against the governor," he said.

Smith's bill (LB610) was passed by the Legislature last week on a 26-15 vote, leaving the question of whether it could clear a promised veto very much in doubt.

Even as Thursday's roll call began, vote-counters in the Rotunda were uncertain of the final result.

Smith, along with a number of other senators, said Ricketts' request that the Legislature withhold action on any gas tax increase until his newly appointed director of the Department of Roads had time to consider funding alternatives would only delay needed action.

"Waiting is not a strategy," Smith said, "when funding needs are massive."

"There's a tremendous cost to doing nothing," Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said.

"There is no magic wand" available to the new roads director, Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo suggested.

The tax increase, which is expected to raise more than $75 million a year once it is fully implemented, is designed to help the state, counties and cities address their multimillion-dollar backlog of needs for road and bridge repair and construction.

The fixed state gas tax rate was last increased 20 years ago.

Ricketts had suggested that an alternative funding source might be forged through public-private partnerships.

Several senators, including Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, said motorists in rural Nebraska will be especially hard-hit by a gas tax increase because of the distances they need to travel.

No one who voted to enact the bill last week abandoned the measure to support the governor's veto. Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis voted to override the veto after originally voting against the bill.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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