Legislature Advances Rent Assistance Bill

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     Nebraska lawmakers took a major step Wednesday toward a showdown with Gov Pete Ricketts over applying for another $120-million dollars in federal rent assistance funds, giving 29-7 first-round approval to a bill forcing him to apply.

       Ricketts has refused, saying the state still has much of the money it received in the first round of federal funding and doesn’t need more because the “storm has passed” and the COVID-caused economic emergency no longer exists.

      Ricketts wrote in his weekly column this week that “we must guard against becoming a welfare state where people are incentivized not to work and encouraged to rely on government handouts well after an emergency is over.”

     The Appropriations Committee last week wrote the governor, urging him to apply – citing a 23% increase in calls to a statewide rent and utility helpline in recent weeks from outside the Lincoln-Omaha area.        

      The panel also said even if the money isn’t spent by a 2025 deadline and returned to the federal government, the state would keep about $7-million in interest earned.

      Several non-profit groups helping rural residents recover economically from the pandemic testified at legislative hearings that much of the first-round money wasn’t distributed because of a bad online application system.

      Nebraska and Arkansas are the only states not to apply for the new funds. The application deadline is at the end of this month.

    Lawmakers on Wednesday also gave unanimous first-round approval to a bill creating a grant program for small businesses that are hit by natural disasters, pandemics or other emergencies in the future.

      The original version of the bill included $20-million dollars in funding, but the money was stripped out before the measure was advanced.

        Its sponsor, State Senator Anna Wishart, of Lincoln, says she introduced it to help local businesses that face future hardships beyond their control, explaining it was inspired by assistance that went to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

      Business groups support the measure, but some lawmakers questioned whether it was necessary. 

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