Pillen to accept summer food program; senators mull "mega-sites"

Feb. 12, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Mike McDonnell speaks Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Mike McDonnell speaks Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Gov. Jim Pillen reversed himself and announced today/Monday that Nebraska will participate in the so-called “Summer EBT” food program for kids from low-income families. And the Legislature is considering a proposal to spend up to $160 million to prepare “mega-sites” – areas with infrastructure prepared to lure big industrial developments. From the Capitol, Fred Knapp of Nebraska Public Media News has more in this legislative update:

In December, Gov. Jim Pillen announced Nebraska would not participate in a program that offers $40 per month of food for children from low-income families. At the time, he compared the summer EBT, or electronic benefits transfer program, to welfare. He said Nebraska already participates in on-site food distribution programs. But referring to cash-for-food distribution programs, he said Nebraskans expect that such pandemic-era government relief programs would end.

In a news conference Monday, Pillen announced that he had changed his mind, saying he had been persuaded by conversations he’s had, including with students he met last week.

“They talked about being hungry. And they talked about the summer USDA program and, depending upon access, when they'd get a sack of food. And from my seat what I saw there, we have to do better in Nebraska,” Pillen said.

Pillen also credited state Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, saying Aguilar helped persuade him his community needs extra help.

At the news conference, Aguilar praised the governor.

“I appreciate Governor Pillen asking me to be here today as part of this announcement. The issue of food insecurity is critical. And I know it's very important to our governor. He’s a strong advocate for meeting the needs of kids in communities across the state,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar, a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, had made his priority bill this year a proposal by Sen. Jen Day, a registered Democrat, to require the state to apply for the summer EBT funds. Other Republican state senators also attended the news conference. But Day said neither she nor other Democratic cosponsors of her bill were invited.

“I think it was maybe a missed opportunity for him in terms of showcasing a very rare, strong bipartisan effort that we don't see too often around here…But ultimately, at the end of the day, the whole point was to make sure that kids are getting fed this summer. And so I don't really care who gets credit for the win,” Day said.

Steve Corsi, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, said Nebraska would go above and beyond federal requirements for the program.

“We're excited about this program, like the governor said, because we're going to implement it the Nebraska way. We won't just be transferring additional money. We're setting up the program to ensure kids are safe in the summer and families have the resources they need,” Corsi said.

Those resources will include information on nutritional foods that can be purchased, a website on how to apply, and staff outreach about other programs that are available to help.

In legislative action Monday, senators debated transferring $160 million from the state’s cash reserve over the next two years to prepare so-called “mega-sites” – large areas with infrastructure already prepared to offer to large manufacturers who might want to locate in the state.

Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, sponsor of the legislation, listed off projects he said the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said the state has missed out on because it didn’t have such a site ready to go. McDonnell said they included “A battery cell plant, $4.2 billion capital, 3500 full time jobs; another battery cell for $4 billion, 1,071 jobs; the electronic vehicle automotive maker, $1.1 billion 4,000 jobs, another manufacturer of auto parts $ 1 billion, 690 jobs.”

Senators adopted an amendment that would set aside just over 15 percent of the funds for areas of the state west of the 100th meridian, which runs through Cozad. Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte supported the move.

“You can go across the state, and we have opportunities, but particularly when you get west of the 100th meridian, what we're really looking at is being able to make sure that that part of the state has an opportunity to utilize this funding as well,” Jacobson said.

But Sen. Rob Clements, chair of the Appropriations Committee, opposed the proposal which he said dipped too deeply into the state’s cash reserve. And Sen. Lou Ann Linehan echoed that sentiment, saying the idea had not received the same extensive consideration as other big-ticket items, such as more than $300 million the state has set aside to redevelop impoverished areas in Omaha.

“When we were doing the north and south Omaha thing, it took three years, and many, many votes, and many, many meetings. And now we're voting ‘yes’ on $160 million? We're not in happy times anymore. I mean, we're not in bad times, but we're not in like ‘We got a billion dollars to give away here,’” Linehan said.

The Legislature has not yet reached a vote on the overall proposal.

Meanwhile, senators did vote to advance a bill tightening regulations on so-called skill games, like Bank Shot, that resemble slot machines but have been ruled by the Nebraska Supreme Court not to be games of chance.

Sen. Jana Hughes suggested that interpretation could be questioned:

“I was driving by a place in Lincoln that has some of these games, and they had a digital display up front and it said ‘Try your luck at our skills games,’ and I found that kind of humorous,” Hughes said.

One requirement of the bill is that businesses where they are located must derive at least 60 percent of their revenue from sources other than the games. Sen. John Lowe, chair of the General Affairs Committee, explained the reasoning for that requirement.

“We are now seeing skill games set up as de facto casinos across the state, where the only thing occurring at that location is skill games. No other revenue is being generated. This language would allow bars, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and others to continue to operate the games they have at their locations while cracking down on the locations with no other business generating revenue,” Lowe said.

Senators voted 31-0 first-round approval of the bill.