Nebraska lawmakers advance emergency funding bill for virus

March 23, 2020 GMT
Nebraska Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, left, walks past Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, March 23, 2020. Nebraska lawmakers reconvened on Monday to pass emergency funding for the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, left, walks past Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, March 23, 2020. Nebraska lawmakers reconvened on Monday to pass emergency funding for the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, left, walks past Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, March 23, 2020. Nebraska lawmakers reconvened on Monday to pass emergency funding for the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Nebraska Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, left, walks past Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, March 23, 2020. Nebraska lawmakers reconvened on Monday to pass emergency funding for the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Nebraska Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, left, walks past Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, March 23, 2020. Nebraska lawmakers reconvened on Monday to pass emergency funding for the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers advanced an $83.6 million emergency funding package Monday to help fight the new coronavirus as Gov. Pete Ricketts sought to assure the public that the state is “well ahead of the curve” compared to others in its response to the global pandemic.

The new funding bill sailed through a key procedural vote in the Legislature with no lawmakers dissenting.

“We’ll get through this, but now it’s our turn to put aside our partisan politics and pass this bill,” said Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

In an eerily quiet legislative chamber, lawmakers gave the green-light for millions of dollars for personal protective equipment for local governments, lab testing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and an ultraviolet light box that would disinfect old face masks so health officials could reuse them.

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The package also sets aside millions of dollars for expected overtime costs in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and state-run care facilities.

One additional vote on Wednesday is required before the bill goes to back to Ricketts, who proposed the initial funding package. Lawmakers agreed to all of his proposals but added $25 million for him to use for new, unforeseen expenses. Some lawmakers wore masks and gloves as they cast their votes, and only they and a small handful of staffers were allowed onto the legislative floor. Members of the media were required to watch the proceedings from overhead balconies, unlike most days when reporters sit immediately off to the side of where lawmakers vote.

“It is truly a historic time in our country and for us to be here, to be able to do something to help the residents of the state of Nebraska,” said Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer.

Meanwhile, Ricketts announced that the state will follow the federal government’s lead in extending the deadline for income tax filers to July 15. Income tax returns are typically due on April 15, and Ricketts urged tax filers who aren’t affected by the virus to still file their taxes by then to help the state maintain its cash flow.

The governor said his administration was also looking at whether to impose a moratorium on evictions to protect renters who have suddenly lost their incomes due to the pandemic. In the meantime, he urged landlords not to kick tenants out of their apartments during the crisis.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

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Ricketts said Nebraska residents have done a good job so far of staying physically separated and avoiding large gatherings to keep the virus from overwhelming the state’s health care system.

A growing number of states including New York, California, Michigan and Ohio have issued stay-at-home orders to ban all non-essential travel and shutter businesses, but Ricketts said such an order wasn’t necessary in Nebraska, based on the plan his administration developed with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious disease experts.

“For our state, that’s not necessary,” Ricketts said at a Capitol news conference. “We are well ahead of the curve here in Nebraska” with the steps residents have taken so far.

Ricketts said he doesn’t expect to order more restrictive measures than what has already been announced, such as limiting gatherings to 10 people and only allowing restaurants and bars to offer carry-out or delivery services. He said additional restrictions weren’t necessary because larger states were likely exposed to the virus much earlier than Nebraska, before it was widely viewed as a major public health threat.

“We’ve got a plan, we’re executing that plan and our plan is sufficient to make sure we’re slowing down the spread,” he said.

He said residents have used “common sense and good judgment,” in response to the crisis, and urged them to continue staying at home as much as possible. He stressed that anyone who appears sick or lives with someone who is sick need to stay out of the public.

Nebraska had 49 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Monday afternoon.

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