Nebraska lawmakers hone in on who gets $1 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds

By: - March 24, 2022 12:04 am

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature moved closer Wednesday to distributing more than $1 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds — and boosted the bounty headed to such efforts as mental health services and bonuses to attract nurses. 

State lawmakers, following a daylong hearing, tweaked the Appropriations Committee’s spending proposal for the state’s allotment of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Their 41-1 vote moved the package of about 40 projects and initiatives to the second round of legislative debate.

Changes adopted Wednesday included a $20 million infusion for construction of mental health treatment and education facilities, on top of $20 million Appropriations had already recommended. State Sen. John Arch of La Vista pushed for the extra funding. He said COVID-19 has only added to mental health problems.

State Sen. John Arch of LaVista
State Sen. John Arch of LaVista
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Carrot for nursing students

Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil championed an amendment senators adopted calling for $10 million to help cover college debt for rural health care workers and nursing students.

Lawmakers also supported a $7 million request from Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton for drinking water system infrastructure benefiting at least four rural communities.

And Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha garnered enough support for an amendment that now directs all $150 million of a fund for job training and business development to North and South Omaha. Before Wednesday, a third of that money would have been open to applications from low-income census tracts statewide.

Both east Omaha communities also are set to get the bulk of a $91 million pot of ARPA funds devoted to affordable housing projects in the Appropriations Committee proposal. The bill also contains another $60 million for a North Omaha business park near Eppley Airfield.

Pared down from $4 billion

Several other funding amendments failed to secure approval from the Legislature, including a request by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue to provide bonuses for teachers. She chastised colleagues, saying they valued sewers over educators.

Speaker Mike Hilgers asked that any senators requesting changes suggest spending reductions in other areas. Blood had suggested cutting some funds from a sewer project at the state fairgrounds in Grand Island.

The $1.03 billion ARPA package was pared down from about $4 billion in proposals from lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The bill, as amended, also funds an array of other initiatives, including $100 million for shovel-ready construction projects statewide, $60 million for a rural health education complex at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, rural workforce housing, community college workforce development and a state law enforcement training facility in Grand Island.

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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. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.