State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha meets with constituents in South Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — At a town hall meeting Tuesday, State Sen. Tony Vargas said he was disappointed that so much of his 2023 legislative session was spent ”fighting on defense” against bills that he said hurt people in his district.
The South Omaha lawmaker said that measures aimed at transgender youths and abortion restrictions, for example, consumed time and also led to a kind of division among colleagues that he hadn’t witnessed before.
But there were bright spots, too, Vargas told the small group gathered in the Bancroft Street Market south of downtown Omaha. Among them was passage of legislation he pushed to help new mothers, food truck entrepreneurs and future economic development projects in South and North Omaha.
And despite gubernatorial vetoes on such efforts as the Vargas-backed middle-income housing funds, he said he expects redemption next year — in his eighth and last session before he’s term-limited out of the Legislature.
“We’ll focus on actual problems facing Nebraskans,” Vargas said, citing demand for affordable housing and workforce shortages as among top concerns he intends to address.
‘Last hurrah’ in Legislature
Vargas spoke for an hour to about 15 people, saying he hoped to have more such “intimate” gatherings to hear constituent concerns that will help shape legislation he introduces in his “last hurrah” session.
Asked whether he plans another run for Congress, Vargas said he had no comment.
Most certainly, Vargas said, he will continue in the next legislative session to push for funding that helps create housing that’s financially accessible to the state’s workforce.
He talked about how close the Legislature got this past session to approving $40 million to expand housing options in rural and urban communities, before Gov. Jim Pillen vetoed the funding.
Pillen at the time said he wanted to protect the state’s cash reserves, which were the source of the housing funds, and didn’t want to “flood the market” with government-funded housing.
The governor also vetoed another measure dear to Vargas that called for a $14.8 million increase in provider rates for hospitals and nursing homes that care for Medicaid recipients.
Vargas said he was disappointed to hear from some colleagues that they supported the legislation but feared “retribution” if they tried to override the governor’s vetoes.
In a more optimistic tone, Vargas said he saw Pillen at a recent event celebrating a new housing project and he said the governor indicated he would work with Vargas next year on housing.
“I’m going to hold him to it,” Vargas said.
One woman in the audience said she was “terrified” that she’ll see “Round 2” of a “hyperpartisan” legislative debate in the officially nonpartisan Legislature — and asked Vargas how he sees that tone changing for a smoother next session.
Vargas said he hopes fellow lawmakers will take more time to recognize the consequences of passing certain laws.
On a personal note, he said he is spending time this summer visiting with colleagues, including those with whom he has conflicted, in hopes of building and strengthening relationships.
Vargas said bright spots of the session included passage of legislation he introduced or helped push. Among those bills was a package that included expansion of Medicaid postpartum coverage for new mothers, from two months to at least six months.
He said he is looking forward to the implementation of the Economic Recovery Act, which is to send hundreds of millions of dollars to economic development projects in South and North Omaha.
Other highlights of his year include:
- Legislative Bill 740, amended into LB 562, which standardizes and eases the permit and inspection process for food trucks. Vargas said the long-fought battle encourages entrepreneurship and provides options for diners. He said his district has the highest concentration of food trucks in the state.
- LB 756, which ensures continuation of and improves the Nebraska historic tax credit program.
- LB 802, which appropriates funds to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for research and treatment of pediatric cancer research.
- LB 75, amended into LB 227, which grants the maternal death review team authority to conduct reviews on instances of severe maternal morbidity in Nebraska.
- LB 201, which, starting in 2024, requires students to complete and submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to high school graduation. It can be waived by a parent or guardian.
- LB 539, which transfers dollars from the Juul Tobacco settlement to help reduce tobacco use by youth.
- LB 570, amended into LB 227, which calls for expert teams to review overdose fatalities with an eye toward preventing future drug overdose deaths through policy changes.
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