Wireless fee increase fails to advance

A bill that would increase landline and wireless fees in certain counties failed to advance from general file March 23.

Sen. Dan Hughes
Sen. Dan Hughes

Currently, 92 Nebraska counties can collect up to $1 per month, per landline telephone number, to pay for 911 services. Wireless phone carriers can charge up to 70 cents per phone number also to fund 911. Both fees are capped at 50 cents per phone line in counties with a city of the metropolitan class.

Douglas County is the only county where this exemption applies.

LB215, sponsored by Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, would remove that exemption and effectively allow an increase of both fees in Douglas County. Hughes said it would create an opportunity to “level the playing field” across the state.

“The installation, operation and maintenance of 911 services in Nebraska are partially funded by surcharges on landlines and wireless services,” he said. “LB215 adds an element of fairness to the funding of those services across all Nebraska counties by removing the singular limit imposed on Douglas County.”

Omaha Sen. John McCollister spoke in support of the bill. He said it would provide needed funding as Omaha struggles to support and expand 911 services.

“Normally, I’d be against a bill of this sort because Nebraska’s cell phone taxes are so high,” McCollister said. “But I think, in this case, it’s justified given the fact that the city is being forced to backfill their current [911] expenses.”

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson also supported LB215. He said that paying for the expansion of next generation 911 services with a user fee — including technology that could find a person’s physical location through their cell phone — makes more sense than using property taxes.

Opposing the bill was Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, who offered and later withdrew a motion to indefinitely postpone the bill. Wayne objected to raising user fees during an ongoing public health crisis and said Douglas County instead should use federal pandemic relief funding.

“We are literally going to double [the surcharge] from 50 cents to $1 when government agencies, particularly in Douglas County, are receiving tons of federal dollars,” Wayne said.

Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney also opposed the bill and questioned the priorities it reflected. He said it is “troubling” that Douglas County and Omaha would seek to raise fees on residents to fund an essential service like 911, while using existing tax dollars to fund a new juvenile correctional facility and increased law enforcement spending.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re having a discussion about raising fees for residents,” McKinney said. “There’s resources coming from the [federal government] and I think the county and the city should focus on those resources to invest into emergency services.”

Senators voted 20-10 on advancement of LB215 to select file, five votes short of the number required.

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