Lawmakers advance a bill that would force Gov. Pete Ricketts’ hand on rent aid

By: - March 9, 2022 9:32 pm

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers sent a message Wednesday to Gov. Pete Ricketts, voting 29-7 to advance a bill that could force him to apply for $120 million in federal rent assistance — something he has refused to do.

State Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln called for the backing of the Legislature because Ricketts has repeatedly said he did not believe Nebraskans needed the second round of emergency funds available under the American Rescue Plan Act.

In his latest column, published Tuesday, Ricketts said the state should acknowledge that “the storm has passed.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Gov. Pete Ricketts (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

“We must guard against becoming a welfare state where people are incentivized not to work and encouraged to rely on government handouts well after an emergency is over,” he said.

Only two states haven’t applied

Hansen said that on the contrary, he has heard plenty from nonprofit organizations working with rural Nebraskans set back by the pandemic. Some testified during public legislative hearings that it was the burdensome online application system that bogged down the request and distribution process during the first round of rent assistance.

Sen. Matt Hansen
Sen. Matt Hansen (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

Hansen noted that Nebraska is one of only two states (Arkansas is the other) that had not applied for their already-earmarked shares of the ARPA funds. If Nebraska doesn’t apply, the funds will go to other states.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said he found the situation to be one of the oddest in his career because there is “no downside” to applying for the funds that would assist with rent and utilities.

Even if a portion was not tapped by a 2025 deadline and ultimately was returned, Wayne said, the state could be earning interest on the funds. 

Moreover, he said, he believes demand is there for the assistance. “If there is one family in need, why wouldn’t we figure out a way to help out?”

Said Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, “This is a no-brainer.”

Work ahead to override veto

The vote followed a letter sent to Ricketts last week from the Appropriations Committee that urged the governor to apply for the funds.

Sen. Justin Wayne
Sen. Justin Wayne (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 1073 was amended to focus on the rental assistance. The bill initially called for creating a Nebraska housing department. Wayne said he would pursue that initiative later.

With Wednesday’s vote, the rental assistance measure now advances to the second of three rounds of legislative floor votes.

Work has yet to be done, Wayne said, to get the 30 votes needed to override a potential Ricketts veto. Some senators asked for more data to show the need, he said. The state has until the end of this month to apply or forfeit the funds, Hansen said.

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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.