Nebraska gives initial OK to $1B pandemic spending plan

Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 2:30 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A plan to spend roughly $1 billion in federal pandemic cash won initial approval from state lawmakers on Wednesday despite squabbles over specific projects.

The package would pour millions of dollars into job-training programs, housing grants, food pantries, meat processors, a new law enforcement training center and dozens of other projects throughout the state. Lawmakers advanced the bill, 41-1, through the first of three required votes.

The federal money was designed to help states and local governments counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the budget-focused Appropriations Committee crafted the $1 billion spending plan out of roughly $4 billion in requests for money, said Sen. John Stinner, the committee’s chairman. Stinner said each member of the committee ranked the proposals privately, and their collective decisions were what shaped the package.

“What I tried to do was create a situation where I could tell whether there was consensus on items,” said Stinner, of Gering.

Lawmakers on Wednesday voted to send $17.5 million to the state’s two nonprofit food banks to buy food and add storage space.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, of Bennington, said the food banks have seen an increase in demand and decline in donations since the pandemic began. DeBoer said demand typically remains strong 3-5 years after a major crisis because people who lost their jobs often end up in debt.

“If there’s some great crisis in your finances, you don’t immediately recover from it,” she said.

But other measures hit a wave of opposition, including one that would have pulled $20 million out of a proposed $47 million law enforcement training center in Grand Island.

Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, questioned whether the project was allowable under federal rules and said the money would be better spent on fighting food insecurity. She later withdrew the amendment.

Supporters of the law enforcement training center said the new center would replace a badly outdated facility and help fill vacant law enforcement jobs faster. They said it was facility was an acceptable use of money because law enforcement officers were considered front-line workers throughout the pandemic and still had to report to work in-person.

“This is a necessary project,” said Sen. Ray Aguilar, of Grand Island.

Lawmakers also rejected a proposal that would have steered an extra $20 million into a bonus program for Nebraska public-school teachers, using money set aside for Nebraska State Fair sewer upgrades.

Sen. Carol Blood, of Bellevue, said she introduced the bonus program to try to fight Nebraska’s statewide teacher shortage. Blood said Nebraska public school teachers earn an average starting salary of $35,820, placing them 47th nationally among the states.

“Our teachers are stressed, our teachers are exhausted, our teachers are exasperated, unappreciated and underpaid,” said Blood, a Democratic candidate for Nebraska governor. “Teaching is a noble profession, yet we don’t treat them as such.”

But Sen. Curt Friesen, of Henderson, said Nebraska’s schools received a separate payout of $1 billion from the federal government and vented about the Legislature’s scramble to use all of the pandemic aid.

“We’re just looking for ways to spend it,” Friesen said.

Copyright 2022 KOLN. All rights reserved.