Push for additional Nebraska rental assistance heads to final vote

Lawmakers want Ricketts to seek $120 million in federal pandemic funding

By: - March 22, 2022 10:40 pm

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LINCOLN — The Legislature plans to vote Wednesday on whether to force Nebraska to apply for $120 million in federal rental assistance funds that Gov. Pete Ricketts has resisted. 

The question is whether senators secure the 30th vote necessary to override a possible veto by the governor. Ricketts wouldn’t share his plans during a news conference Monday.

But a group representing 70 nonprofit agencies serving the needy in the Nebraska Panhandle hopes their letter to the governor Monday will help sway Ricketts. 

The Panhandle Partnership, which rarely takes political stands, voted unanimously to ask Ricketts to apply for the federal coronavirus relief funds that Congress set aside for Nebraska. 

The letter asked the governor to accept the funds and fix what the group described as the state’s complicated process for seeking rental aid, which the letter blamed for the state having leftover funds. The governor has said the leftover funds are a sign the state doesn’t need additional money.

“Underutilization of initial funds was due in large part to the onerous process used to access funds,” they wrote. They said the process was easier in Omaha and Lincoln.

The Panhandle Partnership board, which speaks for nonprofits in 11 western Nebraska counties, told Ricketts their communities need the rental assistance.

“We believe our work represents Western Nebraska values and ask that you recognize and trust that we do not ask for assistance that we don’t need,” the board wrote. 

Karen Benzel, the partnership board’s president, told the Nebraska Examiner on Tuesday that access to those additional funds will help families afford more necessities.

She said state government leaders need to know that inflation is making everyday items such as food, fuel and electricity more expensive, which affects people who are struggling. 

“Many of the people we help don’t have enough money at the end of the month for rent,” Benzel said. “If the funds aren’t used, it’s not costing our agencies or state.”

Ricketts has argued that Nebraska is no longer in a state of emergency due to the pandemic and that it would be inappropriate to ask for the federal funds. Nebraska and Arkansas are the only states that haven’t asked for the rental aid. 

The governor has also argued that the regulations for the latest round of coronavirus relief funds for renters make it harder for the state to make sure people need the funds and harder to avoid fraud.

States retain broad latitude to implement the aid programs in the ways they see fit.

If Nebraska doesn’t ask for the help, the money appropriated for Nebraskans won’t go back to the federal treasury, experts explained. It will be distributed to other states.

“Those funds are going to be used by someone,” Benzel said. “They might as well be used by Nebraskans.”

Nebraska Examiner Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.