Friends of state trust say proposed transfer of $14 million might be unconstitutional

Pillen administration had defended fund shift as fitting the mission of Nebraska Environmental Trust

By: - May 2, 2023 12:23 pm
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— Supporters of the Nebraska Environmental Trust called on state lawmakers Tuesday to reject a proposed transfer of $14 million out of the Trust as likely unconstitutional.

Sandy Scofield, a former state senator and head of the Friends of the Environmental Trust, and Lynn Roper, a former member of the Trust Board, said the Trust was never intended to bolster funding of state agencies.

The Pillen administration has proposed a transfer of $14 million out of the Trust over the next two years to a water resources fund managed by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee included the transfer in its proposed budget.

‘A steal’

“This is a steal, in my opinion,” said Roper. “With the current state funding surpluses, certainly there are other funds available.”

Scofield said a lawsuit against the transfer is being explored.

Friends of the Environmental Trust
Members of Friends of the Environmental Trust and representatives of the Sierra Club of Nebraska called on lawmakers Tuesday to reject a $14 million transfer out of the Trust. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Roper and Scofield joined about a dozen other Friends of the Trust and three state senators at a press conference Tuesday morning at the State Capitol.

The press conference came as state lawmakers prepared to open debate on the state budget Wednesday.

Speakers said the Trust board, which consists mostly of gubernatorial appointees, has strayed in recent years from its mission to “conserve, enhance and restore the natural environments of Nebraska.”

Not intended to ‘pump up’ state budgets

“It wasn’t intended to benefit private interests, nor was it intended to pump up the budgets of state agencies,” said Scofield, who served as chief of staff for the- Gov. Ben Nelson when the Trust was created.

Distributes lottery funds

The Trust board consists of nine citizens appointed by the governor, as well as five directors of state agencies — four of which are controlled by the governor.

The Trust gets about $20 million a year from State Lottery proceeds, which it grants out to organizations for wildlife habitat, recycling programs, conservation efforts and environmental-related research.

Roper said recent decisions by the 14-member Trust Board appear designed to “cut out the little guys.”

Applications for grants from the Trust have declined, she and Roper said, because of confusing and “insulting” decisions by the Trust Board to reject grants for groups that had been funded by the Trust in the past.

Those groups, they said, included recycling operations, habitat projects of Ducks Unlimited and conservation efforts by natural resources districts.

Dozens of complaints

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.

Scofield and Roper urged Nebraskans to call on their state representatives to reject the fund transfer and to ask Gov. Jim Pillen to appoint “qualified” people to the Trust Board.

Scofield also urged the public to weigh in on rules changes proposed by the Trust during a public hearing Thursday in Lincoln. She said the changes appear intended to “further confuse the public” while giving the board “carte blanche” authority to grants funds as they wish.

Phone messages left Tuesday morning with the chairman of the Trust Board, Mark Quandahl, were not immediately returned.

Pillen administration officials have portrayed the $14 million transfer to the State Water Resources Cash fund as a “good fit.”

The Trust had been providing about $3.3 million a year to that fund, but in the past, the State DNR had to apply to the Trust for the funds, go through the grant review process and later document how the money was used.

The Trust was sued in 2020 after the board decided to pull $1.8 million in grant funds from about five conservation organizations and instead transfer the money to a project to install ethanol blender pumps at gas stations and convenience stores.

The ethanol pump project was later abandoned, and the lawsuit was  settled out of court.

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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.