LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A bill that would raise the ceiling on permit fees for restaurants, grocers and pushcart vendors is critical to maintain food safety in Nebraska, an industry lobbyist said Friday.
The measure, which would apply to businesses that sell or process food, finances the state inspection program that ensures food is properly stored and prepared, said Kathy Siefken, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association.
Siefken said the bill — which, over time, would lead to higher fees for her group's own members — is the association's top priority this legislative session. The bill is set for a hearing Tuesday before the Legislature's Agriculture Committee.
"If this bill doesn't pass, there won't be enough funding (for the inspections) provided through the cost of licenses," Siefken said. "They would have to cut staff. It's our opinion that food safety is one of the most important issues in this state, and we do not want to see those inspections decrease or become shorter. It's important that those inspectors are in our stores."
The measure by Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege would not raise fees directly, but would establish a new ceiling.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture adjusts the fees annually to keep pace with inflation and maintain a small cash reserve, but the maximum they can charge is set in state law. The department asked Carlson to introduce the bill to keep the program's revenue and cost balanced, said assistant director Bobbie Kriz-Wickham.
The bill, LB771, is designed to keep the contributions from permit fees in line with the tax dollar contribution from the state's general fund.
The maximum initial permit fee for most food services would rise to about $86, up from about $74. The highest annual inspection fee would climb to about $43, from $37.
Roughly half of the inspections are paid through the state's general fund, while the other half is covered through permitting fees paid by restaurants, grocers, convenience stores and vendors. The cities of Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island collect their own fees and conduct their own inspections, but are required to follow the state rules.
"We didn't want the industry to be entirely dependent on the industry for funding," said Rick Leonard, an aide to the Agriculture Committee. "We've made the argument that the consumer public benefits with confidence (in the food safety), and the industry benefits as well."
Nebraska has 14 regional food inspection offices.
Siefken said the measure will increase funding for state agriculture department food inspectors who have seen their numbers shrink in recent years as the budget tightens.
"There's nothing left to tighten," she said. "I've been on inspections with these people. There's no fat left to remove. The only answer to no fee increases this year would be to reduce the number of inspectors that are out there."
The food code is updated every four years based on scientific evidence of foodborne illnesses and safety. The bill would update Nebraska's law to adopt the 2009 food code, Leonard said.
The measure would also double the permitting fee if restaurants, grocers and other food vendors miss their payment date by more than a month.