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Ricketts has rejected millions in federal pandemic aid on argument that emergency is over

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LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts’ recent denial of federal rental assistance is the latest instance of the governor denying pandemic relief offered by the federal government.

From supplemental food assistance to expanded unemployment benefits, the governor has turned away millions of dollars in federal funding meant for Nebraskans in need, often based on the argument that it is time to return to pre-pandemic order, and often over the objections of some state lawmakers and advocates. Overall, billions of dollars have flowed into the state during the pandemic via multiple massive federal relief packages.

The latest example of Ricketts’ resistance to federal aid came Friday when the governor reaffirmed his decision not to apply for $120 million in rental assistance, after receiving pressure from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Though a majority of that funding, about $72 million, will likely be distributed across Nebraska’s most populous counties, that still leaves about $48 million unavailable to renters.

Nebraska is the only state in the country that does not plan to apply for any of its second-round funding through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last week that he plans to apply for up to 39% of the state’s allocation, about $60 million, making Arkansas the only other state not to seek its maximum allotment, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report.

Ricketts’ justification for turning down the rental aid mirrored an argument he has made before: The COVID-19 emergency is over, and Nebraska is ready to get back to normal.

“We have not been in a pandemic emergency since the summer of 2021,” Ricketts said in his letter to the Treasury Department.

But Ken Smith, economic justice program director for Nebraska Appleseed, said that even if the state’s COVID-19 cases are lower than they were, many residents are still feeling the economic impacts of the pandemic and are unable to meet their basic needs.

“If you think the need isn’t there, you’re not looking very hard,” Smith said.

In the summer of 2020, Ricketts ended Nebraska’s participation in emergency food assistance through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — at the end of July, becoming the first state to not seek the assistance. The federal government under President Donald Trump first made the emergency allotments, which boosted SNAP benefits to the maximum level for all recipients, available in March 2020.

The decision prompted a group of state lawmakers to write a letter asking Ricketts to reconsider the decision.

Eventually, after seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide, Ricketts reentered the program in December. The governor attributed the decision at the time to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic’s resurgence.

The allotments remained available in Nebraska through July 2021, shortly after Ricketts ended Nebraska’s state of emergency, which made the state ineligible for the emergency SNAP benefits.

Though Nebraska ultimately only missed four months of the program, the gap amounted to millions of dollars in assistance. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, between May and July of 2020, Nebraska served 40,000-45,000 households per month through the emergency program, giving out between $7 million and $8 million in allotments each month. This trend continued after the state reentered the program, indicating that Nebraska lost at least $28 million of emergency allotments in that time.

Since Ricketts first ended the expanded SNAP benefits in Nebraska, nearly a dozen more states also have dropped the additional assistance.

In May 2021, Ricketts announced the state would stop paying $300 a week of federal pandemic unemployment benefits, citing Nebraska’s low unemployment rate, which at the time stood at 2.8%. The unemployment rate has since dropped further to just 2% as of March, according to preliminary seasonally adjusted figures.

At the time, other states had made similar decisions, including Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the end of the benefits about two weeks before Ricketts. By the time the expanded benefits expired nationwide in September, 25 other states — nearly all with Republican governors — had already ended their unemployment supplements.

Smith estimated that Ricketts’ decision turned down about $53 million of federal funds.

Throughout the pandemic, Ricketts has been largely willing to accept federal aid.

Early on, Nebraska received more than $1 billion via the 2020 CARES Act. Of that, the governor earmarked $85 million to provide food security, housing and behavioral health care. He directed $392 million to bolster agriculture and businesses, and tagged $180 million for reimbursements to state and local government for pandemic-related expenses. Ricketts also reserved $427 million to bolster the state’s unemployment trust fund and provide budget flexibility in the state’s general fund.

Nebraska also readily embraced the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which provided two major waves of forgivable loans to small businesses and nonprofits in 2020 and 2021. The loans, administered by the Small Business Administration, totaled $5.39 billion in Nebraska.

“PPP was pivotal in helping Nebraska businesses power through the early stages of the economic slowdown caused by pandemic measures,” Ricketts said in 2021.

More recently, the governor signed a bill that allocates over $1 billion in federal dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act, which will support dozens of projects, including recovery efforts in Omaha, replacement of rural ambulances and repairs to wastewater systems in state parks.

A common thread in the aid Ricketts has denied was his concern that each service would make residents too reliant on the government. On food stamps, he said he was worried the emergency allotments would lead to a “cliff effect,” where users would struggle with a sharp drop-off once the program ended.

For the enhanced unemployment, Ricketts said he believed the benefits discouraged people to work.

In his most recent decision to deny federal rental assistance, Ricketts described ERAP as “big government socialism” and again claimed it would be a disincentive for people to work and would encourage residents to “rely on government handouts.”

“It appears the Biden Administration wants to subsidize people’s rent and make them reliant on the government for years to come,” Ricketts wrote in a March 8 column.

Smith said these “senseless” decisions will cause some Nebraskans to go hungry and others to lose their homes. While Ricketts has repeatedly pointed to Nebraska’s low unemployment rate to prove the state doesn’t need federal aid, Smith said employment doesn’t always equate to economic security.

According to Smith, 75,000 households in Nebraska are currently unsure they can make their rent. Many of these residents have jobs, but he said they aren’t making a livable wage.

Inflation is exacerbating the need, with rising prices for food, gas and other necessities. The U.S. Department of Labor said that its consumer price index jumped 8.5% in March from 12 months earlier, the sharpest year-over-year increase since 1981.

Smith said there are “unprecedented lines” outside some local food banks.

According to Stephanie Sullivan with Food Bank for the Heartland, the number of households the food bank and their agency partners have served increased between 6,000 and 13,000 per month since Nebraska’s emergency food stamp allotments expired in July.

“The scope is hard to overstate,” Smith said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press. Twitter @ErinBamer


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