Lawmakers’ road trip pushes airport-related change to Nebraska Constitution

LINCOLN — A bipartisan trio of Nebraska lawmakers drove through Husker Land this week touting a ballot measure tied to air travel as a way for the state to develop new businesses and talent.

Eppley Airfield in Omaha is among nine airports that could be affected by the proposed constitutional amendment. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Amendment 1, which Nebraskas will vote on Nov. 8, would open a door for cities and counties with airports to spend public funds to expand commercial flight offerings.

State Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln, a key supporter, said the constitutional change would initially affect nine airports, leaving their board of directors discretion to guarantee a minimum amount of revenue to incentivize an airline to offer a new commercial service.

Bostar said other states have such a tool and it’s in Nebraska’s interest to level the playing field, especially as its small and midsize airports grapple with a shortage of pilots which led to fewer flight options.

“It’s a common sense solution,” said Bostar, an officially nonpartisan Democrat in the Legislative Assembly. “It affects the quality of life in an area.”

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, a Republican who took part in the statewide tour with Bostar and U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., turned to the generation of her four children, aged 30 to 40, to reinforce the idea that good air service is essential to attract young talent.

“They’re not going to live somewhere they don’t have air service,” she said.

The proposed amendment drew no criticism earlier this year when it was aired at a public hearing before the Legislative Assembly’s Revenue Committee.

He advanced quickly, with a unanimous 47-0 vote from Nebraska lawmakers, to land a spot on the ballot. There has been no organized public opposition since.

But Bostar, Linehan and Flood, who all served on the revenue commission at the time, said they took their message on the road because they didn’t think the average Nebraska voter knew much about amendment 1.

“When you change the state constitution, that’s a big deal,” Linehan said.

With support from state chambers of commerce and more than $125,000 in campaign contributions, the Grow Nebraska flag trio stopped in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Grand Island, Kearney, Norfolk and Omaha for media appearances that usually attracted local supporters as well.

A press conference at the State Capitol in Lincoln on Wednesday concluded the three-day tour.

Supporters of Amendment 1 at the State Capitol. Left to right, Bryan Slone, Nebraska Chamber; State Senator Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha; State Senator Eliot Bostar of Lincoln on the podium; and U.S. Representative Mike Flood, R-Neb, a former state senator from Norfolk. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Bostar, who has a pilot’s license, called the amendment a big deal for Lincoln.

Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Wednesday the state chambers agreed because the amendment would increase opportunities for rural and urban communities.

He noted that the state’s nine commercial passenger airports (at Alliance, Chadron, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, McCook, North Platte, Omaha and Scottsbluff) provide more than 66,000 jobs and have an overall economic output of 6 .2 billion a year and that an improved competitive advantage would help prevent shrinkage.

“The potential impact is monumental,” Slone said. “It’s hard to know how we will continue to attract and retain exactly those people who drive our economy, those jobs and those businesses, without having competitive commercial air service.”

Lincoln’s corporate and airport leaders were among the earliest supporters.

David Haring, executive director of the Lincoln Airport Authority, previously told the Revenue Committee that the development of air services has changed dramatically at US airports. He said widespread consolidation has resulted in four airlines controlling 80% of the total passenger market.

Small regional airports, Haring said, have fierce competition. He said carriers now expect airports in the communities they represent to share start-up costs and participate in performance risk in the early years of service.

He said this is where the minimum income guarantee, allowed under the amendment, comes into play as an agreement between the air carrier and the local airport.

The Minimum Income Guarantee is different and distinct from the annual subsidies that many airports receive from the federal Essential Air Services program, Haring said.

Bostar noted that an airport board can choose not to use the new incentive. If they do, he said, the amendment leverages existing revenue streams to expand flight offerings.

Linehan said she had questions at first, but is “absolutely confident” the change won’t cost taxpayers more.

Airport officials who would determine how best to use the tool, or grant, are elected and accountable to taxpayers (with the exception of Omaha, whose airport authority members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Omaha City Council), Bostar said.

“It’s about local control,” he said.

Steve McCoy, spokesman for the Omaha Airport Authority, said Omaha would “watch and assess” how the amendment unfolds.

Flood said the measure “doesn’t raise your taxes” and said his participation in Grow Nebraska was partly motivated by a need for more direct flights to and from Lincoln.

“In order to provide the quality of life that people want and expect, we need more destinations outside of the Lincoln area,” he said. “It makes it easier for us to recruit new businesses to Lincoln, to recruit people who want to live here.”

Photo of part of a sample ballot.

He added: “Not just for the capital, but cities up and down the highway.”

Bill Austin, a former lawyer for the Lincoln Airport Authority, earlier told lawmakers that minimum income guarantees are the “soup of the day that must be served by small airports if they have any hope of attracting an airline. at the table”.

He noted that the Nebraska Constitution, in its current form, does not allow an airport to use public money for minimum income guarantees. An Attorney General’s opinion in 2020 reinforced this, leading to the proposed amendment.

One way Lincoln was previously able to add a flight to Houston involved its airport co-opting a federal grant with matching funds from the chamber and the university, said Jason Ball, president of the Lincoln chamber.

Jim Smith is director of strategy for the nonprofit Platte Institute, whose mission is to promote policy that removes barriers to growth in Nebraska. He’s also the past chairman of the Blueprint Nebraska Initiative, and he said Amendment 1 aligns with a Blueprint recommendation to expand the state’s air service with temporary state subsidies that reduce the risk of startup for air carriers.

Linehan said today’s airports are what roads were to communities and economic development in the 1950s. She views equipping airports with tools to create services as a government responsibility.

“It’s infrastructure,” she said. “We take care of the roads, we take care of the bridges. … If you don’t have airports, if you don’t have air transport, you won’t be able to develop.

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