LINCOLN — Two state senators who represent districts in North Omaha sharply criticized Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to spend $1.04 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money Thursday, saying his plan short-shrifts their communities.
Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney commented after Ricketts unveiled his plan for money the state is receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, along with his annual budget proposals. The governor listed 29 uses, with the largest amounts going to a canal system in western Nebraska and to grants for construction projects initiated by nonprofit groups.
“It shows he has no real commitment to North Omaha,” McKinney said. “If it’s about ‘The Good Life,’ it should be about ‘The Good Life’ for all Nebraskans.”
Wayne said the proposal “misses the mark” by not directing more money to communities that have been the most affected by the pandemic. The federal law focuses particularly on people living in what are called qualified census tracts, as well as other low-income households. Half of Nebraska’s qualified census tracts are in North and east Omaha.
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Yet, Wayne said, Ricketts’ proposal calls for spending $362 million in rural Nebraska, while providing the potential of $97 million for North Omaha. Of the latter money, only $12 million is specifically designated for North Omaha.
The governor featured that $12 million project in his State of the State address, saying that “through physical improvements such as providing high-speed fiber optic upgrades, and a comprehensive streetscape plan, the project’s work promises to bring businesses and customers back to the area.”
Earlier this month, Wayne and McKinney unveiled a detailed plan totaling almost $440 million for investing the federal money in the area. On Thursday, they introduced two bills to carry out the plan.
Legislative Bills 1024 and 1025 would create a special committee to gather information on the impact of COVID-19 on low-income and minority communities in Nebraska and provide grants. Money for the grants would come out of a newly created North Omaha Recovery Act Fund with $450 million in ARPA money.
To be eligible, applicants would have to explain how a grant would relieve the negative impact of COVID-19 in a qualified census tract in the boundaries of a city of the metropolitan class (that definition applies only to Omaha).
Wayne said Ricketts’ proposals would put the state at risk of having the federal government “claw back” money. That’s the potential penalty if the state does not follow federal guidelines for its use.
Some uses are allowed only for populations that the law designates as affected or disproportionately affected, such as lead paint remediation, aid to unemployed workers and programs addressing the lack of affordable housing. The state has to justify uses for other groups.
“There is no justification for many of the projects outlined in the governor’s budget, nor do they meet the ARPA requirements,” Wayne said.
McKinney said the governor’s budget shows his lack of commitment to alleviating the harms of poverty and historical disparities.
“These funds were specifically designed to help people, not corporations and large organizations,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about building prisons and building lakes.”
McKinney has consistently, strongly opposed the plan to build a new prison, which Ricketts backs. He criticized the governor for wanting to put millions of dollars into a prison rather than into programs addressing the conditions that land people in prison.
At a briefing, Ricketts said he had not included as much for Omaha in his proposal because both Omaha and Douglas County are receiving ARPA dollars directly.
Spokesperson Alex Reuss offered similar information in an email responding to the senators’ critiques, saying together Omaha and Douglas County received $223.6 million in ARPA aid as well as other federal assistance for all areas of the state.
Reuss listed several other proposals within the governor’s recommendation that could have an effect in North Omaha: $60 million for projects under the Site and Building Development Act that will focus primarily on disproportionately impacted communities; $60 million for a pilot program to provide direct assistance to parents with low incomes for expenses to address learning loss caused by the pandemic; and $25 million for urban middle-income workforce housing.
“It’s also important to keep in mind that some of the ‘rural’ project funding that they’re referring to will have a positive impact on the entire state,” she wrote.
But Wayne said the state can’t “pass the buck” and ignore its responsibility to the residents of North Omaha. McKinney added that neither the state nor the city showed a “willingness” to develop North Omaha during talks last year.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Alex Reuss.