LINCOLN — Despite a recent plea from key state senators, Gov. Pete Ricketts continued to say “no” Monday to applying for an additional $120 million in federal funds for utility and rent assistance.
During a press conference, the conservative Republican was asked to respond to a letter sent last week by the members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee urging the governor to apply by the March 31 deadline.
Nebraska is one of only two states — Arkansas is the other — that have not applied for the emergency aid.
‘Sound policy’ to applyThe letter, signed by all nine members of the committee, cited a 23% increase in calls to a state helpline for rent and utility assistance from areas outside of Omaha and Lincoln. Besides helping landlords — who get the federal aid payments — the state would realize $7 million in interest that could be used for others purposes by the state.
“It is simply sound fiscal and social policy to apply for these funds,” stated the letter..
But Ricketts said Monday that he fails to see a “justification” for the state to apply for the emergency funding given signs that the emergency has passed, including the drop in COVID-19 cases and the state’s low unemployment rate.
He said that Nebraska received $200 million from the first round of federal rental assistance funding but that 42% of the funds have not been used. The state’s portion was about $158 million and was to be used in rural areas only, with the other $42 million sent to the Omaha and Lincoln areas.
Can’t justify need
“Right now, with our data here in Nebraska, we have a hard time justifying that need,” Ricketts said.
He said no one has shown him data that the need for rental assistance in rural areas, by landlords or tenants, is any higher than it was prior to the pandemic.
Ricketts pointed out that Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and “has plenty of money” for rental assistance that will last through the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the need for such emergency relief appears to be dropping, he said, along with the cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations for those infected.
Two senators criticize governor
The letter from the Appropriations Committee was signed by all nine members, including conservatives, moderates and liberals, in support of the application.
At least two state senators, Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney, have criticized Ricketts for seeking help for commercial landlords but not owners of residential rental property.
State Sen. Mike McDonnell initiated the letter, which stated that the committee had heard plenty of testimony this year about the continued need for rental assistance.
The letter stated that rural areas, unlike the Omaha and Lincoln areas, have not gotten direct emergency aid from the federal government. It also said that with the recent increases in heating bills, renters will need aid more than ever.
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