Lt. Governor only one question for lawmakers

Thursday, December 23, 2004

While leadership roles in the state capitol are still up in the air, there's no doubt it will be business as usual.

State Sen. Tom Baker is looking forward to an interesting year, with the upcoming change in the governorship and in legislative leadership.

"People keep asking me who (Lt. Gov. Dave Heinemann) is going to choose as the new lieutenant governor," Baker said. "The truth is, I don't know. The truth is, I don't think he knows either."

Baker said, however, that he doesn't believe it will be a state senator because of the legalities of switching from the legislative branch of government to the administrative branch.

Baker said he will be very comfortable working with the new governor when he takes office after the confirmation of now-Gov. Mike Johanns to his new post as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary.

The U.S. Senate's Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry has set Johanns' confirmation hearings for 10 a.m. Jan. 6.

Johanns was nominated by President Bush on Dec. 2.

Baker said the race for Speaker of the Legislature has been very low-key. Two senators are currently vying for the position. Sen. Roger Wehrbein of Plattsmouth and Sen. Kermit Brashear of Omaha are in the running for the position. The empty seat comes as a result of the retirement of Sen. Curt Bromm.

Baker said, as in previous years, the balance of the legislative session will involve state budget matters.

"There's very little that we do that doesn't involve spending money in one way or another," he said.

While the state has recorded an increase in state revenues over the projected budget, most of that excess revenue will be consumed by increases in state aid to school and Medicare and Medicaid.

"That leaves everyone else scrambling for the remains," he said.

Baker said because of increased enrollment projections, he hopes to find money to fund a new dorm and recreation center for the Nebraska Technical School of Agriculture in Curtis. The school received an endowment of $3.5 million from the estate of Jean (Sullivan) Rawson to be used for scholarships for students.

"It's just a question of finding the money," Baker explained. And since every senator has a special issue, finding the money may not be as easy as it sounds.

Baker briefly discussed the idea of raising the state's gas tax by 4 cents. Two cents to be given to cities and two cents will be used by the state for highway improvement projects.

"It's a fair tax," he said. "If you drive a vehicle and use the roads, you pay for the privilege. If you don't drive you don't pay."

As Transportation Committee Chairman, Baker is also working on legislation that will allow regulation of wireless phone companies. At present, the wireless companies are self-regulated. New legislation would allow the Public Service Commission to intervene when it comes to billing practices, service lapses, connection availability and dropped calls.

The first day of this year's legislative session is Jan. 5. Sen. Baker participates in the weekly Legislative Committee meetings each Thursday. The first meeting date has not yet been set. That information will be released when it becomes available.

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