Plan for pandemic funds advanced, with more money for mental health, health care workforce | Politics


LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers managed to squeeze more projects and initiatives into the state’s $1.04 billion of federal pandemic recovery funds Wednesday.

Over the course of the day, senators adopted six amendments to Legislative Bill 1014 before giving the bill first-round approval on a 41-1 vote. The measure allocates money coming to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Among the changes, State Sen. John Arch of La Vista managed to get $20 million added for a plan aimed at expanding mental health services and building new treatment facilities. The addition would bring the plan total up to $40 million.

He argued that Nebraska has a critical need for more behavioral health services to keep people healthy, employed and out of prison and that the pandemic exacerbated mental health problems, especially for youth.

The plan involves building an inpatient mental health facility for youth in the Omaha area, building or renovating schools serving troubled youth, developing pediatric mental health urgent care centers in Omaha and Kearney and expanding services provided by Community Alliance in Omaha.

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Senators also approved a plan to allocate $5 million to help rural health care providers pay off college loans and $5 million to provide scholarships for nursing students. Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil pushed for the money, which is aimed at helping ease the shortage of health care professionals.

Nebraska hospital and medical associations had urged support for both programs to help strengthen the health care workforce, which has suffered losses during the pandemic. 

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha convinced colleagues to direct $150 million to North and South Omaha for business development, community and cultural recovery, job training and other needs. 

His amendment did not change the amount allocated by the Appropriations Committee for such uses. But the committee plan called for $50 million of the total to be available to qualified census tracts anywhere in the state.

Qualified census tracts are areas with a high concentration of low-income residents. Half of Nebraska’s qualified census tracts are in North and east Omaha, but there are some in several communities.

Wayne, who had worked with Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney on a $450 million plan to transform North Omaha, argued that there had not been any plans put forth on behalf of other parts of the state and there had been no testimony about what their needs might be. 

Lawmakers also nixed some amendments offered Wednesday. 

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston proposed to put $60 million into education recovery grants for low-income students. The $2,000 grants could be used for private school tuition, tutoring, digital learning subscriptions, home school curriculum and other K-12 educational services.

The idea had been part of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ plan for the ARPA funds but was not included in the Appropriations Committee package.

Albrecht wound up withdrawing her amendment after running into opposition over her proposal to take the money from nursing homes and developmental disability providers.

Lawmakers also rejected a plan to allocate $20 million to support teachers. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, received only 11 yes votes, with 17 senators opting not to vote at all. 

Blood’s plan would have distributed the $20 million across Nebraska’s public school districts for the purposes of school employee retention. Another bill the Legislature is considering would incentivize new teachers to join the profession, but Blood said her amendment would support teachers working today. 

“They are sick and tired,” Blood said. “And they don’t think they are being heard.”

The main problem senators had with Blood’s plan was that it would take money away from a sewer project at the state fair grounds in Grand Island. However, Blood said that project could still happen if the Legislature used money from the state’s general fund. 

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers required senators proposing amendments to spell out what project they would reduce or eliminate to pay for their idea. The pay-for requirement was necessary because the Appropriations Committee package allocated nearly $1.03 billion of the $1.04 billion total. 

The committee package included money for 37 projects and initiatives. Among them: replacing aging rural ambulances, boosting health and human services provider payment rates, repairing wastewater systems in state parks, and funding nonprofit construction projects that were interrupted by the pandemic.

Others include: developing rural and urban low-income housing, updating a climate change study, building a rural health complex at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and repairing an irrigation canal that runs from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to Gering.


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