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

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

LINCOLN — A bipartisan trio of Nebraska lawmakers traversed Husker land this week touting an air travel-related ballot measure as a way the state can ramp up new business 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 Nebraskans will vote on Nov. 8, would open a gate for cities and counties with airports to spend public funds to expand commercial flight offerings.

State Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln, a chief proponent, said the constitutional change initially would affect nine airports, allowing their governing boards discretion to guarantee a minimum amount of revenue to incent an airline to bring in a new commercial service. 

Bostar said that other states have such a tool and that it’s in Nebraska’s interest to level the playing field, especially as its small- and medium-sized airports struggle with a pilot shortage that has led to fewer flight options.

“This is a common sense solution,” said Bostar, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. “It affects the quality of life in a region.”

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., looked to the generation of her own four kids, between ages 30 and 40, to reinforce the idea that good airline service is integral to attracting young talent. 

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

The proposed amendment drew no critics earlier this year when it was aired during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

It advanced swiftly, with a unanimous 47-0 vote by Nebraska legislators, to land a spot on the ballot. There’s been no public organized opposition since. 

But Bostar, Linehan and Flood, all of whom served on the Revenue Committee 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, it’s a big deal,” Linehan said.

Buoyed by support from state Chambers of Commerce and more than $125,000 in campaign contributions, the trio under the flag of Grow Nebraska stopped in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Grand Island, Kearney, Norfolk and Omaha for media appearances that typically also drew local supporters.

A news conference in the State Capitol in Lincoln on Wednesday wrapped up the three-day tour.

Amendment 1 supporters at State Capitol. From left, Bryan Slone, Nebraska Chamber; State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha; State Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln at the podium; and U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb, formerly a 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 that state chambers are on board because the amendment would increase opportunity for rural and urban communities.

He noted that the state’s nine commercial passenger airports (in Alliance, Chadron, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, McCook, North Platte, Omaha and Scottsbluff) provide more than 66,000 jobs and have a $6.2 billion in overall economic output annually and that an improved competitive edge 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 companies, without having competitive commercial air service.”

Lincoln business and airport leaders were among early proponents.

David Haring, executive director of the Lincoln Airport Authority, previously told the Revenue Committee that air service development has changed dramatically at U.S. airports. He said widespread consolidation has put four air carriers in control of 80% of the total passenger market.

Smaller regional airports, Haring said, have fierce competition. He said carriers now expect airports in the communities they represent to share in startup costs and have a stake in performance risk during the first years of service.

He said that is where the minimum revenue guarantee, allowed under the amendment, comes into play as an agreement between the airline carrier and the local airport.

The minimum revenue guarantee is different and separate from annual subsidies many airports get from the federal Essential Air Service Program, Haring said. 

Bostar noted that an airport governing board may choose not to use the new incentive. If they do, he said, the amendment allows flexibility to tap into  existing revenue sources to expand flight offerings.

Linehan said she had questions at first but is “absolutely convinced” that the change will not cost taxpayers more.

Airport officials that would be determining how to best use the tool, or subsidy, 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.

“This is about local control,” he said.

Steve McCoy, spokesman for the Omaha Airport Authority, said Omaha would “watch and evaluate” how the amendment plays out.

Flood said the measure “does not raise your taxes” and said his participation in Grow Nebraska is driven in part by a need for more direct flights in and out of Lincoln.

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

Photo of a portion of sample ballot.

He added, “Not just for the Capital City, but cities up and down the Interstate.”

Bill Austin, former attorney for the Lincoln Airport Authority, told lawmakers earlier that minimum revenue guarantees are the “soup du jour that must be served by small airports if they have any hope of luring an airline to the table.”

He noted that the Nebraska Constitution, in its current form, does not allow an airport to use public money for minimum revenue guarantees. An attorney general’s opinion in 2020 reinforced that, which led to the proposed amendment.

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

Jim Smith is chief strategy officer for the nonprofit Platte Institute, whose mission is to push policy that removes barriers to growth in Nebraska. He also is former president of the Blueprint Nebraska Initiative, and he said Amendment 1 aligns with a Blueprint recommendation to scale up the state’s air service with temporary public subsidies that reduce startup risks to air carriers.

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

“This is infrastructure,” she said. “We take care of roads, we take care of bridges. … If you don’t have airports, if you don’t have air travel, you are not going to be able to grow.”