We are now on the summer Southern Nebraska Register publication schedule. You know what that means? It means you only get to use my column for fire kindling every two weeks instead of every week. If you need extra columns to light up in flames, I believe my beautiful bride, Makayla, is collecting a pile of them somewhere.
On a slightly more serious note, in my last column (“A Potpourri of Updates”) I discussed my childhood hatred for the smell of potpourri. I must issue a correction. I stated that my hatred continues and is experienced when my wife compels me to go into the craft store, Michael’s, a place that I believe the famous poet, Dante, writes about in the sixth circle of the Inferno. That claim upset her. She wanted the record corrected, lest you all think she’s a Michael’s shopper. She is not. She’s a Hobby Lobby shopper!
Now, in all seriousness, the last time I wrote we were on the cusp of ending the legislative session. I’m happy to report the legislative session has been over for about two weeks. And as I mentioned in my previous column, two legislative bills the Nebraska Catholic Conference sponsored were to be vetoed by Governor Ricketts. He did indeed veto those bills. The Unicameral subsequently overrode his vetoes.
So, what were those two bills? What were the Governor’s objections to them? And why did the NCC support these bills?
The two bills were LB108 and LB306. Both bills pertain to raising the income eligibility threshold for low-income assistance programs.
LB108—introduced by Sen. John McCollister (Omaha)—increases the threshold for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—formerly known as the food stamps program) from 130% of the federal poverty level to 165% FPL for the next two years. LB306—introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt (Plymouth)—increases the threshold for the low-income energy assistance program from 130% FPL to 150%.
For context, 135% of the federal poverty level is the equivalent of a family of four with a household annual gross income of $26,500.
In his veto messages, the Governor articulated his rationale for opposing these two bills. Regarding LB108, he made three principal arguments. First, he argued that LB108, while increasing the income eligibility threshold to apply for food assistance, still required the applicant to meet another 100% net income eligibility threshold. He claimed this would lead to some disappointed applicants who meet the first threshold but fail to meet the other threshold.
Second, he argued that the increase would disincentivize people from working and create dependency on government welfare. Third, he argued that increasing assistance to more people would undermine those who have the highest needs for assistance.
The Governor’s stated concerns with LB306 were largely centered on concerns that the funding for this low-income energy assistance would come from one-time funds. These funds would run out, thereby leading to people on the program with less funds available to serve all qualified recipients.
For the Nebraska Catholic Conference, LB108 and LB306 were both small, but important, steps toward ensuring some basic material needs of the poor are met. Both Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities, the charitable arms of the Diocese of Lincoln and the Archdiocese of Omaha, respectively, had record-setting years in 2020 for poverty assistance. You have likely read about these efforts by CSS from my column neighbor, Father Justin Fulton. To further illustrate, Catholic Charities of Omaha went from providing around 200,000 pounds of food in 2019 to nearly 1.5 million pounds of food in 2020. Even with that increase, Catholic Charities still did not meet the basic nutrition needs of the poor in the Archdiocese. Similar things could be said about other forms of assistance (e.g., rent and utilities).
In short, what we have seen as a Church which walks with the poor—accompanying them as Christ Himself did—is that the needs of the poor far exceed the ability of individual persons, families, churches, and other local community entities (such as non-profits and businesses) to serve those needs. Catholic social teaching recognizes that where lower (more local) forms of community cannot provide a particular need, it is right and just that higher forms of community step in to assist those lower forms of community to help meet the needs. In other words, LB108 and LB306 are bills where there is a justifiable need for the government to increase its assistance to the poor, in order to supplement—not supplant—the local efforts of churches, non-profits, and businesses which fulfill their obligations to provide a preferential care for the poor.
As with any bill that successfully overrides the veto of the Governor, the bill will go into law as prescribed by the legislation. In this case, both bills went into effect immediately as they contained “emergency clauses.” Both bills will be important supports for those who find themselves in serious need of assistance from the broader community of the state.