LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature mustered 26 votes Wednesday to force the state to apply for $120 million in federal funds for rental assistance that Gov. Pete Ricketts has opposed.
But the state’s renters and landlords would get none of the funds unless Ricketts changes his mind or the federal government changes its rules to let Nebraska apply for the rental aid in June, months after the March 31 federal deadline to apply.
Had supporters secured seven more votes, 33, they would have been able to pass the bill with an emergency clause, requiring Ricketts to seek the funds immediately, to meet the deadline. The bill, as passed, would not become law for three months.
Still a chance
State Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, who prioritized Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne’s Legislative Bill 1073, said he and others pursuing the funds might yet have a way to secure them.
Hansen said he and others are working with U.S. Treasury Department officials about new guidance Treasury is creating for the rental assistance funds that might give Nebraska more time.
“We might not be able to access all of the funds in June, but we could be able to access some,” Hansen said of the timing of when LB 1073 would become law, if Ricketts lets it.
Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha said he hopes Nebraskans will be able to access the funds but said talk about changing federal rules to do so sounds like “a lot of optimism at this point.”
“It’s important for the whole state,” McKinney said. “There’s need across the state, not just in my district, but every district has issues. It’s rough.”
Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, a Ricketts ally, said she was pleased the emergency clause effort failed. She said she opposed the bill because she opposes “big-government programs.”
“I think this is a slippery slope toward a long-term federal government program providing money for rental assistance under the guise of the COVID emergency,” Slama said.
The bill forcing an application on rental assistance earned 29 votes through the first two rounds of debate. On Wednesday, it earned three fewer, passing 26-15 without the emergency clause. Hansen said a handful of his supporters didn’t make it back to the Capitol to vote Wednesday.
Three senators were excused: Sens. Rich Pahls of Omaha, Tom Brewer of Gordon and Eliot Bostar of Lincoln. Another sat out the vote, Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha.
Even the bill that passed without the emergency clause would require 30 votes to defeat a possible Ricketts veto. The governor has not said whether he might reject the bill. A Ricketts spokeswoman said Wednesday that he expects to take his full five days to weigh in.
Hansen said he has the votes, if needed, to override a Ricketts veto.
Advocates: Need is real
Ricketts has said he will not apply for the aid on his own, that the money is not needed. He has said Nebraska’s pandemic state of emergency is over, and he called it wasteful spending.
Advocates from Omaha to Scottsbluff have disagreed, saying anti-poverty groups are feeding, clothing and helping a higher number of people with rent and utilities, and people face higher costs.
The money can be used as direct payments to landlords on behalf of people behind on their rent. It also can be used to help people who are struggling to catch up on utility bills.
If Nebraska doesn’t seek the money, the funds appropriated for Nebraskans won’t go back to the federal treasury, experts explained. It will be distributed to other states. Nebraska and Arkansas are the only states that haven’t applied.