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Nebraska fails to override governor’s denial of rental aid

April 5, 2022 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers failed Tuesday to overrule Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a bill that would have forced him to apply for $120 million in federal pandemic rental assistance, leaving the state as the only one to flat-out refuse the aid.

Supporters in the one-house Legislature fell one vote short of the 30 they needed to overcome the Republican governor’s rejection of the money.

Lawmakers who pushed for Nebraska to seek the extra aid said it makes no sense to turn away the money, even if the state never uses it all. Nebraska could invest the idle money, for instance, and keep the earned interest if the federal government requires the state to return what doesn’t get spent.

“If it can help one or two families in your communities, why not vote yes?” said the bill’s sponsor, Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne. “There’s not a downside.”

Ricketts and other critics have argued that Nebraska still has $30 million in unspent money from an earlier round of federal aid.

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Ricketts argued in his veto letter that the money will encourage government dependence when the worst of the pandemic has passed. He also pointed to Nebraska’s 2.1% unemployment rate, the lowest nationally, and the still-unused cash.

“We cannot justify asking for federal relief when Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and is no longer in a state of emergency,” Ricketts said in his veto letter.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced in October that it would shuffle some of the money from programs that don’t need it to those where demand is greater. In Nebraska’s case, lawmakers and housing advocates said that would mean extra money for Omaha and Lincoln, which have separate programs, but not the rest of the largely rural state.

Nebraska will still have 40% of its $120 million available until 2025, or about $51 million. The remaining money, about $70 million, could be reallocated to Omaha; surrounding Douglas County; the city of Lincoln and surrounding Lancaster County.

States and localities have until September to spend their share of the first $25 billion allocated, known as ERA1, and the second $21.55 billion, known as ERA2, by 2025.

Under federal rules, the money can be used for rental assistance, services to prevent evictions and affordable housing activities.

Other conservative lawmakers questioned the long-term consequences of the federal government’s pandemic spending.

“At some point we have to stop,” said Sen. Curt Friesen, of Henderson. “There is no such thing as free money. When I hear that term, it gets me wound up. You’re taking money from someone and giving it to someone else, or you’re just printing money. Either way, it hurts Nebraska.”

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Nonprofit housing advocates have said many residents are still hurting from the pandemic and need help to make rent payments.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that some of our elected representatives would entirely disregard the voices of their communities asking them for help in favor of a purely political argument that helps no one,” said Erin Feichtinger, director of policy and advocacy for the social service agency Together.

Some have said the application process for rental assistance is cumbersome, which is why demand appears to be low in some parts of the state, but some renters are still getting evicted.

“Why are we turning our back on the people who could potentially use this?” asked state Sen. Mark Kolterman, of Seward. “It’s just a business decision that has a lot of upside and not one nickel of downside.”

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Associated Press writer Michael Casey contributed from Boston.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte