Forty-four members of the Nebraska Legislature came together Monday to advance a bill that would provide emergency funding related to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
Several senators wore medical face masks, and five were excused from attendance: Sens. Steve Halloran, Robert Hilkemann, Rick Kolowski, John McCollister and Patty Pansing Brooks.
Only senators were allowed on the floor, no media, and senators were advised not to go into the lobby. But they sat in their usual assigned seats.
Outside the Capitol, a handful of people held signs that read "Empower Most Vulnerable," "Take Responsibility" and "We love our Asian Community."
The senators advanced the bill (LB1198) to final reading on a voice vote to provide $83.6 million to the Governor's Emergency Cash Fund to aid in the fight of the COVID-19 virus spread.
The money will go to the Department of Health and Human Services and the University of Nebraska Medical Center for such things as medical and laboratory equipment, personal protective equipment, UV light boxes, staffing and testing.
The emergency funding request was put into a priority budget bill that previously was intended for discretionary funding for restoration of the chamber doors. The money will go from the state's rainy day fund to the governor's emergency cash fund to the military department for a new program: the Governor's Emergency Program — COVID-19.
Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner said the money will be put into a separate fund with a new accounting system.
"We should have a good accounting system. Obviously, this is a fluid situation, but accounting-wise, I believe we will be able to account for the funds in a very transparent manner," he said.
It allows the retention of any unused funds into a single location in the governor's emergency program, he said. And, under the program, recipients of the funds can hire as many people as they need for the emergency.
Stinner thanked the governor's office and state and local entities for their efforts to combat the outbreak and local providers for their dedication and hard work.
"We'll get through this," he said. "But now it's our turn to lay down our partisan politics and pass this bill for the state to protect the safety and well-being of all Nebraskans."
Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said that in the name of legislative intent, and from her perspective, the unobligated resources provided should be prioritized for vulnerable populations served by nursing facilities and federally qualified health centers.
After advancing the bill, senators stood at ease for about an hour so the bill could be updated and read into the record.
Stinner said after the vote that, as the session moves forward, if state revenue comes up short, whether it be sales or income taxes, that will have a direct impact on the $280 million excess receipts that previously had been projected to go into the cash reserve, or rainy day fund. So there will be an impact on the reserve from that and from the emergency spending.
"I don't think anybody understands how deep or how long this is going to last or what effect it's going to have on receipts," he said.
It can directly affect spending going forward, such as on property tax relief or the tax incentive program (LB720), and any other spending bills, he said.
Speaker Jim Scheer said a quorum of senators would check in Tuesday for the required one-day layover for the bill and on Wednesday for final reading of the bill, with an emergency clause. It would then be moved to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his signature and would go into effect as soon as he signs it.
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