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Proposal to require federal summer food funds for Nebraska kids stalls, at least for now

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Proposal to require federal summer food funds for Nebraska kids stalls, at least for now

Feb 09, 2024 | 1:17 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
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Proposal to require federal summer food funds for Nebraska kids stalls, at least for now
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Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen's administration has said no to participating in a new, more permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program aimed at supplementing other efforts that target child hunger. A legislative bill aims to force the governor's hand in participating. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — An effort to force Nebraska to permanently participate in a pandemic-era summer food program for kids has stalled, at least for now, in a legislative committee.

Legislative Bill 952, introduced by State Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, would reverse Gov. Jim Pillen’s denial to participate in the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program for 2024 and mandate that Nebraska permanently join in future years

Should Nebraska participate, the program is estimated to provide $18 million in grocery-buying federal funds to about 150,000 low-income children at a state cost of about $400,000 per year.

However, State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, which is considering LB 952’s next steps, came with a different idea Thursday: to attach Day’s bill to his LB 1381, which would require all able-bodied individuals ages 16-59 to work in order to receive SNAP benefits.

Hansen said Thursday that doing so could be a “win-win,” potentially garnering more votes for lawmakers, particularly conservatives who, he noted, might be hesitant about Summer EBT. 

“I think it’s a good show of bipartisanship and we can kind of work together to get two contentious bills through without having to filibuster for how many hours,” Hansen told the Nebraska Examiner on Friday. “I thought it was a pretty good idea.”

Day said the move isn’t needed for her bill, which State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island prioritized in hopes of securing a quick floor debate.

“We already have a win in our hands,” Day told fellow committee members during a tense executive session Thursday evening.

Bill can’t pass until mid-March

Pillen and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services had a Jan. 1 deadline to express interest in the program, but Day has said the feds might still allow Nebraska to participate this year. 

Every second of delay, Day said, brings a chance the state might be too late to participate in the program this year. 

“There is a reason there was a deadline,” Day said.

Hansen said Friday that the deadline has already passed and that the earliest Day’s bill could pass is mid-March under the Legislature’s rules. Lawmakers cannot pass any bills with a fiscal impact until after approving annual budget adjustments or appropriations.

State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, speaker of the Legislature, who sets the daily agenda, said Hansen is right that fiscal impact bills can’t pass before the budget does.

This might preclude Nebraska’s participation for 2024, Hansen said, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture set a deadline for the state to submit a formal management and administrative plan of the Summer EBT funds by Feb. 15.

“She says every day matters. Well, you have five weeks to get it through general and through select, which is plenty of time,” Hansen said of Day. “We can’t even get them (Summer EBT funds) for this year.”

‘Fiduciary responsibility’

Day said in a Friday text that the Feb. 15 deadline is nonbinding on Nebraska, based on conversations with USDA officials, and she said they are attempting to provide more time. Even so, Day said, future summers are important, and she said neither she nor Aguilar approves of Hansen’s idea.

“(Hansen) is using his position as chairman to block a bill to feed children that is (a) on a tight timeline and (b) has broad bipartisan support,” Day said.

Proposal to require federal summer food funds for Nebraska kids stalls, at least for now
State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, left, speaks with State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City. Dec. 7, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

In addition to Aguilar, three conservative senators have signed on to Day’s bill: State Sens. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln, Jana Hughes of Seward and Tom Brandt of Plymouth.

“Bottom line: There’s hungry kids out there. They need to get fed,” Aguilar told the Nebraska Examiner prior to Thursday’s executive session.

Pillen declined to join the program, saying he did not “believe in welfare.” He and DHHS have said Nebraska has an existing summer food-related program.

Aguilar said the program Pillen is referring to feeds about 14% of children in need.

“That’s not a lot,” Aguilar said. “If we can take advantage of federal programs, I think it’s our fiduciary responsibility.”

‘End of the world’

State Sens. Merv Riepe of Ralston and Beau Ballard of Lincoln, HHS Committee members, said they would support the bill, providing enough votes to advance through committee.

But Riepe hesitated, saying that he wanted to hear the chairman’s idea and that he didn’t like having a “gun to my head to vote one way or another.”

“I find it difficult to believe the end of the world is going to be tomorrow if we don’t (vote),” Riepe said.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said it is “unconscionable” to leverage anything against feeding children and didn’t want to tether anything to their health or well-being.

“I don’t think we should be delaying it a second longer,” she said.

Day said that while Hansen believes that his idea would increase votes, she’s confident that merging the two bills would lead to opposition from her ideologically aligned colleagues.

‘Delicate balance’

Cavanaugh said if Hansen felt so confident about his idea, he should take it to the full Legislature. She indicated  that Thursday’s meeting has larger implications for a session in which lawmakers have tried to set a different tone than in 2023.

“You are the one that is disrupting that delicate balance with the choices you are making,” Cavanaugh told Hansen. “Senator Day has the bill. She has the votes. She has the priority. You are choosing to disrupt the delicate balance that is the 2024 legislative session.”

“I understand with full faith what I’m doing here,” Hansen responded.

“I sure hope you do,” Cavanaugh said.

Arch, a former chair of Health and Human Services, was not at Thursday’s meeting but said later he believes there is still a path forward without upsetting this “delicate balance” with his charge to “learn how to debate difficult issues.”

“We have to learn how to do that, and I’m convinced we’ve established a good pattern at the beginning of the session,” Arch said. “I think we can find a way through this as well.”

Hansen said it is his intention to bring LB 952 back for a committee vote no later than next Thursday.