LINCOLN — The Nebraska Environmental Trust voted Thursday to change its position from neutral to opposed on legislation that would restrict transfers of wildlife land to the federal government.
Two board members who voted for the change said they wanted to send a clear message to lawmakers that their chairwoman did not speak for them when she sent a letter in support of Legislative Bill 57.
The measure advanced to second-round consideration Wednesday after a heated eight hours of debate on the Legislature floor.
The term “heated” also described the discussion that took place Thursday before the trust board voted 6-5 with one abstention to change its position on the bill. Two members of the 14-member board were not present for the vote.
The Environmental Trust exists to distribute about half of state lottery profits to environmental projects through a competitive grant process. The governor appoints nine of the board members, while the remaining five positions are held by leaders of state agencies whose work involves the environment, agriculture or public health.
Early in the current legislative session, the board took a neutral position on LB 57, which requires grant recipients to get a second round of trust approval before they transfer any acquired land to the federal government.
Because the federal government makes in-lieu-of-tax payments that are lower than the regular property tax value of a property, the bill also requires grant recipients to pay counties for any lost revenue.
The bill exposed an existing fissure on the trust board. Some board members strongly support land acquisition as the best way to ensure future habitat, while opponents say setting land aside for nonagricultural purposes hurts rural counties.
Despite the board's neutral stance on the issue, Chairwoman Gloria Erickson of Holdrege sent a letter to senators in support of LB 57. In the letter, she identified herself as the chairwoman but did not indicate she was writing on her own behalf.
Board member Robert Krohn of Omaha told Erickson it was wrong to have undermined the board's neutral position. During floor debate, the bill's sponsor named Erickson as he said there was support for the measure on the trust board.
“Ethically, it is totally wrong,” Krohn said.
Board member James Stuart Jr. of Lincoln also chastised Erickson, telling her she should feel ashamed.
“Believe you me, there is a lot in my life I am ashamed of, but this isn't one of them,” Erickson responded. She said she was speaking on her own behalf when she sent the letter.
She also pointed a finger at Mark Brohman, the trust's director, saying she heard he had lobbied against the bill this week. Her charge was backed up by board member Greg Ibach, director of the State Department of Agriculture.
Brohman was present at the Legislature during the debate, but he said he always made it clear to any state senator he spoke to that the trust was officially neutral on the bill. While he made himself available to any senators who had questions, he said, he was mostly approached by opponents.
Sen. Tyson Larson, sponsor of the bill, said Thursday that he was disappointed to hear that the trust had changed its position. He said the change illustrates the need for his bill — to cement in law restrictions on land transfers so future boards won't start executing more of them.
“It proves my point even more that the Environmental Trust board needs legislative oversight,” he said.
The board also voted to approve about $24 million in funding for 87 new grants and 47 existing projects.
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