Environmental Trust proposes rule changes to clarify procedures

Watchdog group says proposals fall short and make it harder for ordinary citizens to determine grant criteria

By: - April 10, 2023 5:15 am
Nebraska Environmental Trust

The Nebraska Environmental Trust, headquartered in Lincoln, awards about $20 million a year in grants to help the state’s environment. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Environmental Trust)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Environmental Trust is proposing 22 pages of rule changes with hopes that it will clarify its procedures and make more consistent its administration of about $20 million a year in grants it handles from state lottery proceeds.

The Trust will take public comment on the proposals May 4 at noon in a basement hearing room at a state office building at 245 Fallbrook Blvd. in northwest Lincoln.

Karl Elmshaeuser, the Trust’s executive director, said many of the changes involve removing regulations that are already duplicated in state statutes.

That includes large chunks of rules that state the “categories” of projects funded by the Trust and the “purpose” of the organization, which was established to distribute grants for environmental and conservation projects funded by the Nebraska State Lottery.

They haven’t done anything to clear up the things that have caused them problems or irritated the public.

– Sandy Scofield of Friends of the Environmental Trust

Additions to the rules are also being proposed that require grant applications to spell out long-term environmental benefits of their project and to provide a plan for evaluating the benefits. The rules proposals also state that prior grant recipients would not be eligible for new grants if they didn’t comply with prior grant deadlines and other terms.

Not everyone is pleased with the proposals, which came after the Trust held a series of listening sessions across the state last year and after a state audit and performance assessment recommended changes in the regulations.

Sandy Scofield, a former state senator who is involved in a watchdog group called “Friends of the Environmental Trust,” said she doesn’t think the rule changes address a key problem, which is clarifying the requirements to qualify for Trust grants.

High number of grants ruled ineligible

Of the 87 grant requests made to the Trust last year, 40 were deemed ineligible for grants, including several applications that had won approval in past years. It prompted dozen of complaints at a hearing in November.

That followed additional complaints at a Trust “listening session” in October about the unexplained rejection of dozens of grant requests.

The Trust, in the past, disqualified only a handful of applications a year. Concerns have also been expressed about the millions in funds the Trust has declined to grant, creating an unprecedented fund surplus.

“They haven’t done anything to clear up the things that have caused them problems or irritated the public,” said Scofield, who was chief of staff under Gov. Ben Nelson when the Environmental Trust was created.

She said that it’s clear the Trust was attempting to “streamline” and shorten its list of regulations by eliminating clauses that were already in state statutes. But unless you’re a lawyer, Scofield said, you may not know where to look to determine what the rules are.
Former State Sen. Sandy Scofield, president of Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, spoke at a Trust meeting in January. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“The main reason you do this is to communicate with the public,” she said. “And this is a mighty poor job of doing that.”

Transfer of funds also proposed

The proposed rule changes come after another controversy — a proposal by Gov. Jim Pillen to take $14 million in the Trust’s lottery funds and transfer it to the state general fund so it can be used for water projects.
The transfer, portrayed as a “raid” on the Trust by some, comes as the state sits on a record surplus of funds.
The public can testify in person May 4. Written comments must be received by 5 p.m. April 24 to be considered at the public hearing. Written comments received after that day will still be accepted and included in the hearing record.

Send written testimony to: Nebraska Environmental Trust, 700 S 16th St, Lincoln, NE 68508, or to [email protected]

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.