Nebraska Legislature falls one vote short of overriding federal rent aid veto

Rural counties outside Douglas and Lancaster lose out on pandemic-related funds

By: - April 5, 2022 7:30 pm

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers fell one vote short Tuesday of overriding Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto on federal rental help, which means the state’s more rural towns won’t be getting any piece of what turned into a controversial $120 million pot of aid.

State Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, who led the override push under Legislative Bill 1073, was disappointed in the 29-16 vote, as were housing advocates who over the last several days tried to sway senators. 

They said it is the smaller, more rural communities outside Douglas and Lancaster Counties that will be shut out of about $51 million of second-round funds available through the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

“The rental assistance will end in 91 counties by the end of September,” Hansen said. “Douglas and Lancaster will keep theirs. Everything else will stop.”

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

‘Incredibly disappointing’

He and Erin Feichtinger of Together Omaha lamented that Ricketts’ influence was too much to overcome.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that some of our elected representatives would disregard the voices of their communities asking for help in favor of a purely political argument that helps precisely no one,” said Feichtinger.

Ken Smith, economic justice director of Nebraska Appleseed, called the situation a “breathtaking”  commentary on the Legislature’s priorities.

“When it comes to spending on lakes, waterways and buildings, there is resounding support,” he said in a statement. “When it comes to supporting human beings struggling to recover in hard times, consensus is lost.” 

I find it really silly that we would turn our backs on the people who elected us in rural Nebraska. They need some help.

– State Sen. John Stinner of Gering

Several senators representing rural communities backed Ricketts’ stance that such aid could label Nebraska a “welfare state” that relies “on government handouts.”

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

Three senators — Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer, Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen and La Vista Sen. John Arch — were present but chose not to vote.

Gravy and bread

“I understand what poverty is all about,” said State Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte, adding that he grew up on a farm with seven brothers and sisters, often eating gravy and bread for dinner and sometimes getting a sliced up hot dog in the mix as a “treat.”

But, he said, “At what point do we say, ‘We’re done. We’re going to raise our own families. … We’re going to be self-sufficient?”

State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney said that the emergency funds were “borrowed from somewhere” and that accepting them would be fiscally irresponsible and hurt future generations.

“This is putting our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in debt further,” he said.

Said Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus: “There are those who think the government is supposed to be the answer to everybody’s problems.”

Mike Jacobson of North Platte (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

On the other side of the debate were lawmakers such as Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, who said there also was a business benefit to accepting the allotted funds. At the least, he said, the money could earn interest until tapped or returned.

‘Souls and compassion’

“It’s just a business decision that has a lot of upside and not one nickel of a downside to it,” Kolterman said. “Think about that person who could be losing the roof over their head. … Why are we turning our back on the people that could potentially use this?”

Said State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln: “Where are the hearts in this body? Where are the souls and compassion?”

Tuesday’s vote capped a contentious few months over whether the state should accept the $120 million in the second round of emergency assistance that Congress set aside to help Nebraskans behind on rent and utilities.

As far back as January, Ricketts has taken a stand against applying. He told the Nebraska Examiner then that it was the kind of  “irresponsible spending that has ushered in record inflation and surging national debt.” 

Hansen stepped up to seek intervention from the full Legislature, making LB 1073 his priority, and asked fellow lawmakers to force Ricketts’ hand.

Sen. Mark Kolterman
Sen. Mark Kolterman of  Seward (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

‘COVID hangover’

Hansen said then that the money was to be routed to other states if Nebraska didn’t apply. He said all state executive branches except Nebraska and Arkansas had applied. Moreover, he said, numerous Nebraskans had testified about the need for the funds in legislative hearings.

Although the Legislature on March 23 adopted LB 1073, the bill fell short of the 33 votes needed for an emergency clause that would have pushed the application forward by a March 31 deadline to collect the full $120 million.

Just before the deadline, lawmakers learned of new guidance from the U.S. Treasury that allowed at least a portion, about 60%, of that $120 million to go to Nebraska after all. But the kicker was that the recipients would be larger urban areas — Douglas and Lancaster Counties and the Cities of Omaha and Lincoln.

That’s because those urban governments already had applied for the emergency funds in their own right. The $70 million or so from the $120 million pot would be a supplement.

Sens. Wendy DeBoer and John Stinner
Sen. John Stinner  of Gering (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

Tuesday’s veto override vote was described as a way to salvage $51 million for the 91 counties outside Douglas and Lancaster, which could be available up through 2025.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering said there would be a cost to not accepting the aid. He said that a “COVID hangover” has set back families and that rental and utility help could be a needed boost.

“I find it silly,” said Stinner, who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. “I find it really silly that we would turn our backs on the people who elected us in rural Nebraska. They need some help.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.