Senators scrap with Ricketts’ budget administrator over rental aid

By: - February 11, 2022 5:30 pm
Eviction notice and mask

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A two-hour public hearing Friday on whether Nebraska should apply for more COVID-related federal rental aid was capped by a rather testy exchange between a few state lawmakers and the lone opponent who appeared on behalf of Gov. Pete Ricketts.

About 20 parents, service providers and landlords took turns endorsing Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen’s measure to seek the full Legislature’s vote on directing the governor to apply for the $120 million earmarked for Nebraska.

Another 58 letters were sent in support of the Hansen amendment to Legislative Bill 446, which responds to the governor’s decision not to seek the second round of emergency rental aid. Nebraska is one of only two states that hasn’t applied. The deadline to do so is in late March. Otherwise the federal funds will go to other states.

The Urban Affairs Committee did not take any action Friday, but members listened to many of the backers of extended rental aid recount their hassles with the application process. They said the aid was needed and there were better ways to distribute the funds.

Stepping up to defend Ricketts’ position was Lee Will, the state’s budget administrator. He laid out various steps the state took to distribute the first round of funds and said the full amount still was not used.

He said 840 questionable cases have been turned over to an auditor.

Asked by Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt why Ricketts opposes the extended aid for renters, Will said, Ricketts “doesn’t believe it’s a need for the state.”

Will said he had talked to local governments such as Douglas and Lancaster Counties and officials did not express a need for continued rental aid. He said the governor is relying on the data.

Said Hunt: “If the math doesn’t add up, then all of these people who came here to testify must not know what they’re talking about, is that your, the governor’s position?”

Will: “I think that’s putting words…”

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha asked if leftover money could be attributed to the “cumbersome” application process described by some who testified Friday.

To that, Will said: “Some may find it cumbersome. I would say we’re not paying fraudulent actors.”

Will said the State of Nebraska paid international consulting firm Deloitte to help create safeguards in the process.

Said Hunt: “So Deloitte made a cumbersome portal that is preventing people from accessing funds that has caused the governor to think nobody needs funds.”

Will said the federal government allowed up to 10% in administrative costs in recognition of the complications of running the program.

Hunt asked, “Why is it fiscally responsible to take all of this assistance … and give it to another state?”

Said Will: “They are showing they have a need. We are not showing that same need.”

Hunt said she heard a lot of need Friday and added, “I have to say it took you a lot of guts to come in here and say all that.”

Said Will: “Thank you very much, I appreciate it.”

Wayne noted that 85% of the eviction cases he’s seeing in Douglas and Lancaster Counties are based on lack of rental payment and said that’s an indication of need.

He again asked why the Governor’s Office believes the rental assistance should end, prompting Will to note the state’s low 1.7% unemployment rate.

“There are opportunities,” Will said. “Now we have to connect people with those opportunities…. At some point it’s not a COVID-related impact anymore, and we have to get back to after COVID.”

Wayne: “Are we ‘after COVID’ now?”

Wayne, a little later: “Does the governor feel the same way about all the aid we give to farmers? When does that assistance have to end?

Said Will: “That’s out of this conversation, Senator.”

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.