Nebraska lawmakers move to raise legal age to 19 for smoking and vaping

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature took a step Tuesday toward raising the age for legally smoking cigarettes or vaping.

Lawmakers gave first-round approval to Legislative Bill 149, which would raise the age to 19 for buying and using tobacco products and “electronic nicotine delivery systems.”

State Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island said he introduced the measure in hopes of getting Juuls and other types of electronic cigarettes out of the hands of high school students.

“This is an issue we need to address for the health and safety of our children,” he said. “If we don’t address it now, there will be a whole generation addicted to nicotine.”

Electronic cigarettes are designed to deliver nicotine, flavorings and other additives to the user through an inhaled vapor. One of the most popular brands of e-cigarettes is Juul, a product that resembles a computer flash drive.

Quick said the issue was brought to him by Grand Island school officials, who were concerned about a steep rise in the number of students using Juuls. The increase mirrors national trends.

A recent advisory from the U.S. surgeon general said e-cigarette use increased 78 percent among high school students from 2017 to last year. Currently, an estimated 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students use e-cigarettes.

The trend raises health concerns because most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the addictive drug in tobacco. A typical Juul pod, or cartridge, has about as much nicotine as a pack of regular cigarettes. According to the surgeon general’s advisory, nicotine can harm the developing teenage brain, affecting memory, learning and attention, as well as increasing the risk of addiction to other substances.

Quick’s original proposal called for raising the legal age to 21, up from the current age of 18. The bill would have affected only e-cigarette products.

The General Affairs Committee amendment set the age at 19 and expanded the bill to include regular cigarettes and other tobacco products. It also would require e-cigarette sellers to be licensed, just as tobacco vendors are licensed.

An effort to change the amendment and set 21 as the legal age fell short.

Opponents argued that the higher age represented too much government regulation, while a one-year bump in the legal age was better targeted at the problem of vaping among high school students. Others said enforcement could be difficult.

“We’ve passed laws like this before, but youth find a way around it,” said Sen. John Lowe of Kearney.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed an amendment to eliminate language in the committee amendment that would make e-cigarettes subject to the state’s smoking ban. Wayne said there is not enough research showing secondhand dangers from vaping, as there was with smoking. Quick ended up agreeing to the change to win support for the bill.

Property tax relief bill headed to debate by full Nebraska Legislature

LINCOLN — In what a key senator described as a “brave” decision, a comprehensive property tax relief bill was advanced to debate by the full Legislature on Tuesday.

Voices rose in disagreement more than once before the Legislature’s Revenue Committee voted 6-0, with two senators abstaining, to advance Legislative Bill 289, which aims to lower property taxes by increasing sales taxes and by boosting state aid to K-12 schools by nearly $500 million.

“This was a big, brave thing to do,” said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Revenue Committee and was one of the main authors of the bill. “It will be property tax relief for everyone, both urban and rural.”

Whether the bill can collect at least 33 votes from the 49 senators to head off an expected filibuster and overcome an almost guaranteed veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts is far from certain. Urban schools still oppose the bill, and rural senators on the committee felt that LB 289 gave up too much, by cutting by half the state property tax credits that landowners now get.

“There were a lot of compromises,” said Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford. “We’ll still probably have a lot of work to do on the floor.”

One of the committee members who abstained, Omaha Sen. John McCollister, said he wanted to see a flow chart on how the complicated changes in the state aid formula will work before he could support the bill. McCollister also questioned whether the state could afford, in future years, the increased state aid obligations under LB 289, which will rise each year with inflation.

“I’m not sure that’s the best bill we could have produced,” the senator said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, in a statement Tuesday evening, said he was “appalled” by the advancement of the bill, which he has called the “largest tax increase in Nebraska’s history.”

“If the full Legislature approves LB 289, working Nebraskans will be footing the bill for nearly $600 million in new government spending,” Ricketts said. “Nebraska has tried this approach before, it has failed and it has resulted in record high property taxes. I urge senators to … kill these tax hikes.”

LB 289 represents the most comprehensive attempt to cut property taxes since 1990, when the Legislature overrode Gov. Kay Orr’s veto to pass LB 1059, a proposal that substantially shifted financing of local education onto state sales and income taxes in hopes of reducing property taxes.

But recent skyrocketing values of agricultural land have put the state on the cusp of another property tax crisis — and spawned a petition drive to place a referendum on the 2020 ballot to limit property taxes. Senators said something needs to pass this year to head off the petition drive, and to help farmers and ranchers dealing with low crop prices and property tax bills that have, in some cases, doubled in the past decade.

“Politics is the art of compromise they say,” said Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, a farmer who supported the bill. “It’s a good package for all Nebraskans. You can’t get everything you want.”

Another farmer on the Revenue Committee, Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, abstained. He opposed the cuts in the property tax credits.

Under LB 289, about $372 million in new tax revenue would be raised by increasing state sales taxes by ½ cent and repealing the sales tax exemptions on about 20 services, ranging from haircuts, lawn mowing, home repairs and veterinary services for pets. New taxes would be imposed on bottled water, pop and candy, and the tobacco tax would increase by 36 cents a pack.

Linehan said her hairdresser will hate the bill. “But if you spend less on property taxes, you have more money to spend on your hair,” she said.

State aid to local schools would rise by an estimated $482 million in the first year, and $563 million in the second, by using the new tax revenue as well as using $119 million in property tax credits. It would guarantee that at least 33% of the cost of school districts across the state would be paid by the state — a big increase for many rural schools that get little state aid now — and that each public school student in the state would get at least $3,400 in state funding. About 25% of the state’s general funds would be devoted to K-12 aid under LB 289.

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