Legislature Moves Toward Approving ARPA Spending

March 23, 2022, 6 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

The Nebraska Legislature Wednesday moved toward approving spending just over $1 billion in federal funds on everything from housing to extra pay for nursing home employees.

The money in question comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The plan proposed by the Appropriations Committee would direct funds to a wide variety of projects. The biggest chunk, $210 million, would go to low-income, high-poverty areas across the state. Another $100 million would go to so called “shovel-ready” capital projects related to arts, culture, humanities and sports, with another $91 million for workforce housing.

Sen. Tony Vargas, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said the recommendations represented a consensus of Democrats and Republicans, rural and urban representatives on the committee.

“I think that there are really good things in here. I know that we’re going to debate on whether or not it is fully equitable and I understand that debate. But if I were going to craft a budget myself, it would look very different. It would. We’re crafting a budget with eight other individuals, nine-member committee,” Vargas said.

Sen. Curt Friesen questioned whether all the spending was necessary, zeroing in on the $91 million for workforce housing.

“We’ve got construction companies out there building houses as fast as they can get windows and plumbing and electrical supplies and find labor to get new crews to work, because right now our unemployment rate is the lowest in the country and the lowest in the history of the state. And so if we think we can throw $91 million and have more houses built, that’s a joke. We’re not going to build any more houses. We’re going to build the same amount of houses but we’re going to give a lot of people a subsidy to build those houses. The cost of housing is going to skyrocket because we can’t get materials, we can’t get people to build them. We’re building as fast as we can,” Friesen said.

Sen. Justin Wayne said the $25 million set aside to administer $1 billion in spending was not enough.

“The federal government has said you have up to 10 percent because we recognize how complicated following these strict rules will be. Our current budget has 2 percent. Two percent for our entire government agencies, including DHHS and DED to administer over a billion dollars in funding. That is damn near impossible,” Wayne said.

Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee, defended the proposed allowance for administration.

“We have appropriated $25 million through this process, and it’s up to the executive branch to allocate those dollars where needed -- just like normal,” Stinner said.

Much of the day was spent considering proposed amendments to the plan. The process required senators to specify where they would take money away from, if they wanted to add it somewhere else. Sen. John Arch asked for an additional $20 million to build mental health facilities, especially for young people.

“In 2020, more than 44,000 children in Nebraska were diagnosed with a mental illness. Tragically, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. The sooner mental illness can be treated, the better chances these young people have to acquire the coping skills and work skills needed to grow into happy, healthy adults,” Arch said.

Arch’s proposal reduced but did not eliminate funding for premium pay for providers of service to developmentally disabled people and nursing homes. It was adopted on a vote of 39-0.

Another successful amendment was sponsored by Sen. Tim Gragert, who wanted $7 million to help pay for a new water treatment plant for Cedar and Knox counties in northeast Nebraska. Gragert said the current plant draws surface water from Lewis and Clark Lake, is likely to be inundated by sediment in the next 20 years, and requires extra treatment for pollutants.

“Funding is needed to develop a groundwater source with a treatment plant more centrally located within the distribution system potential nitrates and/or manganese,” Gragert said.

Gragert’s amendment, which took funding from housing and job training, was adopted 33-0.

Others were not so successful. Sen. Megan Hunt offered an amendment to transfer $20 million of $48 million set aside for improvements to the Law Enforcement Training Center, and use it for food assistance instead.

That was opposed by senators who said improvements like an indoor shooting range are needed, and expanding the center’s capacity will help reduce a shortage of law enforcement personnel across the state. Hunt eventually withdrew her amendment. And an amendment proposed by Sen. Carol Blood, to provide $20 million to schools for incentive payments to retain teachers failed, drawing only 11 votes, with 18 senators voting against it.

In other action Wednesday, senators voted 26-15 final approval for a bill to require Gov. Pete Ricketts to apply for $120 million in emergency rental assistance from the federal government. Ricketts has said the state is not in an emergency, and he opposes applying for the funds. Even though the bill passed, it did not have the 33 votes needed to take effect immediately, meaning the March 31 deadline to apply for the funds will have passed before it can take effect, even if the governor doesn’t veto it. Sen. Matt Hansen, sponsor of the bill, said there’s still a chance the federal government could extend the deadline.

Editor's note: Wednesday evening, senators adopted an amendment saying only areas within the city of Omaha would be eligible for aid to areas of high poverty and unemployment. They then voted 41-1 to give the ARPA spending bill first-round approval.