The Nebraska Legislature has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is sitting on just over $1 billion in federal COVID-19 economic stimulus and pandemic relief money to distribute throughout the state.
These funds were provided through the American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) which was passed by narrow margins last year by the U.S. House and Senate and signed into law by President Biden.
After becoming law, the Governor and Nebraska Legislature agreed to treat these funds like a normal budget appropriation. This means that the Governor proposed how he would spend the funds, and the Legislature has been crafting a plan for spending the funds.
The $1 billion in funds has elicited over $5 billion in legislation proposing how to spend the funds. These ideas range from those that would cost several tens of thousands of dollars to ideas in the hundreds of millions of dollars and the topics for spending range from A to Z.
Over the last two months, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has had over 125 hours of public hearings on the bulk of introduced proposals.
While there are any number of meritorious projects being considered by the Legislature, the NCC has identified three particular ideas we believe demand support by the Appropriations Committee, the whole Legislature, and the Governor.
Learning Losses. The first proposal is one Governor Ricketts included in his ARPA proposal, LB1014, which was introduced on his behalf by Speaker Mike Hilgers. This proposal would provide $60 million for Education Recovery Accounts (“ERA”). The ERA proposal would give low-income families $2000 per child to address learning losses created by the pandemic. These funds would go to families regardless of their school setting, public, non-public, or home school, since the pandemic did not discriminate against kids based on the school they attend.
In particular, in Catholic schools across Nebraska, our lowest income schools experienced roughly 13-15% decreases in enrollment. This was, in significant part, because of the economic stresses the pandemic placed on these families. The difficult task of making partial tuition payments became all the harder—and sometimes impossible—for these families during the pandemic. While Catholic schools have done everything in their power to help families with tuition, the pandemic also put serious stress on these low-income schools’ budgets.
The Governor’s ERA proposal is important win for low-income families. Every kid gets one shot at their K-12 education and passage of the ERA proposal would ensure kids get back on their feet and are prepared for success.
Refugee Housing. Another major proposal is LB968, introduced by Sen. Myron Dorn. LB968 would provide $10 million in ARPA funds to help non-profit entities develop affordable housing and job training and placement opportunities for refugees and other immigrants. Nebraska communities, both rural and urban, have been experiencing a critical housing shortage, which has had a serious detrimental effect on low-income families.
In talking with Catholic Social Services, the pandemic created additional inequities for the refugee community in their quest for safe, affordable, and accessible housing. Sen. Dorn’s legislation would be an important step in securing this basic human right for our refugees.
Last but certainly not least is LB1201, introduced by Sen. Wendy DeBoer. This legislation would provide $40 million to non-profits entities to assist with food distribution and food insecurity issues which have grown exponentially through the pandemic.
Hunger Crisis. At a recent hearing on LB1201, Catholic Charities of Omaha reported 400% increases in food distribution, going from serving 3,000 people per month pre-pandemic to serving 22,000 per month. This has been an unsustainable growth—and a growth which is not going away anytime soon. The growth has put serious strains on their food supply, infrastructure, and distribution and storage facilities.
Sen. DeBoer’s LB1201 would be a major step forward for organizations—like Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities—which are doing their best to address Nebraska’s hunger crisis.
Pray and Advocate. As the Appropriations Committee crafts their ARPA proposal, pay attention to whether these key proposals make it into their proposal. As well, keep an eye on other important proposals like Sen. Justin Wayne’s proposal to make significant investments through ARPA funds into North and South Omaha. These are communities that have historically experienced high levels of poverty and, as such, were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Pray that our Legislature and Governor make investments in our hardest hit communities, so that everybody gets back on their feet and thrives in a post-pandemic world—and do not hesitate to advocate for those in need with your State Senator.