Senators Reject Control Over CARES Act Dollars, Advance Budget

July 28, 2020, 6 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

The Nebraska Legislature rejected an attempt to take control away from Gov. Pete Ricketts over federal CARES Act dollars. Senators also gave second-round approval Tuesday to changes in the state budget.

Nebraska has received $1.25 billion in CARES act money. Gov. Pete Ricketts announced plans in May for how to spend it, including funds for state and local government agencies, businesses, and social service organizations. The plan also included parking more than $400 million in the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, although Ricketts said some of that could be transferred elsewhere if the federal government gives states more spending flexibility on how to spend the funds. The governor said language in last year’s state budget bill gives him the power to say how the funds will be spent.

On Tuesday, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh tried to give that power to the Legislature. Cavanaugh proposed an amendment to this year’s state budget bill that would have divided unused CARES Act funds among various purposes. She proposed $30 million to help people pay for rent, and $28 million for $500 grants for families who have lost 50 percent or more of their income for at least two weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began. The proposal also allocated money for childcare and food expenses. Cavanaugh said legislators in other states have helped decide how to spend the money, and urged her fellow legislators to get involved.

“I hope that you will join me in taking control of these funds as is our duty. And we don’t have to distribute them this way, but we should be distributing them. We shouldn’t be keeping them in a bank account, unutilized, in hopes that the federal government does something else. It’s our job to utilize them – not the governor’s, and not the federal government’s,” Cavanaugh said.

Only 16 senators voted for Cavanaugh’s amendment to take control of the money, with 28 opposed.

Discussion then turned to a proposal by Sen. Curt Friesen to eliminate what he said were increases proposed in various programs this year. His proposed reductions included big and small ticket items, like $10 million for rural workforce housing, and $250,000 for child advocacy centers to investigate child sexual abuse or assault. Sen. Rob Clements supported Friesen’s proposal, alluding to the economic effects of the pandemic.

“There was plenty of money back in March when we were putting these items together, and now there isn’t. So I think some reduction in new spending is reasonable,” Clements said.

Senators who favored the spending opposed Friesen’s proposal. Among them was Sen. Sara Howard, who zeroed in on the proposed reduction to child advocacy centers or CACs.

“When you take money away from the CACs, they don’t have the staffing. They don’t have the medical expert who can be there to do the sexual assault kit for that child. They don’t have the worker, the therapist who can sit in the room. They don’t have the person who can work with that kid who has had a horrific experience. So $250,000 seems like a small price to pay to make sure that that child, who has been molested and abused, has the opportunity to feel safe,” Howard said.

Friesen then withdrew his amendment, and senators gave the budget bill second-round approval on a voice vote.

Tuesday afternoon, the Legislature slowed to a crawl as Sen. Ernie Chambers joined Sen. Justin Wayne in offering a series of amendments and motions on various bills. Wayne complained that a group of seven senators is negotiating over how to pass a property tax relief bill and LB720, a bill for corporate tax incentives, while he can’t get approval for a commission on African-American affairs, costing $250,000. He alluded to how it would take only 17 senators filibustering against property tax and corporate incentive bills to stop them.

Citing budget projections that show the state will end this fiscal year with $90 million more than its required 3 percent budget reserve, Wayne said that means there’s room for senators who haven’t gotten their spending priorities approved yet to get some things they want, in exchange for not blocking what the majority wants.

“I have one ask: let’s build the Magnificent Seventeen. And what that is, is going to be 17 senators who want to come together for $30 million of the $90 million on the floor, and let’s put a plan together, and maybe that’ll help us get to 720 and property tax relief, maybe it won’t. But the one thing it will do is help this body to continue to move forward,” Wayne said.

There are 10 business days remaining in the legislative session that will show whether that that momentum will materialize.