The Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust were brought together by a common concern that the board of the Nebraska Environmental Trust has not adhered to either the letter or the spirit of the laws that govern its operations. I am president of the Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust and have served as a member of the Legislature, chief of staff to a governor, state budget director, and have been an administrator for the University of Nebraska. Other board members of the Friends similarly have deep experience in both the public and private sectors. Four have served as members of the Nebraska Environmental Trust board.
The Environmental Trust’s mission is to conserve, enhance and restore the natural environment of Nebraska. It uses public funds derived from the Nebraska Lottery to make grants to carry out that mission. The Trust’s grant award process should conform to statutory requirements, be transparent, understandable, consistent and fair to applicants. In short, the award of grants should be an objective rather than a subjective process in which each member of the board tries to obtain support of “their” projects.
A year ago, the board defunded five grants recommended by its Grants Committee and shifted those funds to another proposal that was much lower ranked. The action taken was not transparent nor was it consistent with past practice. It was unfair to the defunded grantees who were blindsided and given no coherent explanation. The decisions made were subjective.
Private citizens other than the Friends have brought a legal challenge to those actions, and legal questions raised will be resolved in court.
This year an attempt was again made to shift funds from recommended proposals to a much lower scoring proposal for a school building. That move was denied on a 5-3 vote. The people on the board who recognize their responsibility to the public interest saved the board from repeating their earlier mistake.
But the Legislature has now confirmed four people to the board, three of whom voted to change funding to a grant that was far down the grant committee’s ranked recommendations. We hope their close confirmation vote does not embolden them to continue doing as they please.
The Friends believe the grants process can be improved, making it more objective and less subjective. That may not fit the board’s agenda. Over a month ago, after reviewing the statutes, rules and regulations, policies, other material and attending board and grant committee meetings, we submitted detailed recommendations to the board for use as part of an agency review process it has initiated. To date the board has not even acknowledged receipt of our recommendations. The Friends have also asked that the review process contain an opportunity for public participation. There has been no response to that request.
Since 1993, The Nebraska Environmental Trust board has distributed a total of nearly $400 million covering every county in the state. Its program is the envy of citizens in other states and has allowed individuals and local organizations to carry out conservation projects that would not otherwise have been possible. The integrity of the Nebraska Environmental Trust board can only be protected by board members who understand and carry out their duty to the public.
While 25 senators voted to seat the nominees last Friday, we thank the over 20 senators who considered our request and either voted not to approve these board members or abstained from voting to confirm. We will continue to monitor the board and call out those board members who violate the trust that has been placed in them. And we will work to make the grant process one which is objective, understandable, consistent and fair to applicants. We believe all Nebraskans can agree that is a goal worth pursuing.
Sandy Scofield, a Lincoln resident, is president of the Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust.