Nebraska is forging ahead to create tax-free savings plans for people with developmental disabilities, despite a regulatory dispute with the federal government.
The state expects to be among the first to launch its version of so-called ABLE accounts sometime next summer, state Treasurer Don Stenberg announced Thursday. First National Bank of Omaha will manage the program.
ABLE stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience. The accounts, which are similar to 529 college savings plans, will allow people with developmental disabilities to save money without counting against their asset limits for federal programs like supplemental security income or aid to dependent children.
Those limits make it virtually impossible for many people with disabilities to live independently, even if they are able to work.
"This is a huge, huge lift off of our hearts for his future," said Vicki Depenbush, whose son, Jacob, is an 11th-grader at Lincoln East High School.
Jacob was diagnosed with a form of autism when he was 21 months old, but he hopes to live independently and perhaps have a full-time job after he graduates.
Nebraska's ABLE program, called ENable, will allow him to do that, his mother said.
It is not known how many other Nebraskans might benefit, but Stenberg said the state hopes to enroll as many people as possible to help defray the costs of administering the program.
"We certainly hope that we can get the word out," he said. "The more the better as far as we're concerned."
Four to five other states have expressed interest in joining Nebraska's plan, as well, he said. While the program for now is only open to Nebraska residents, other states can contract with Nebraska to run their plans as well, further distributing the costs.
That's all contingent on what happens at the IRS.
The agency has been crafting rules for ABLE accounts since the plans were first authorized by Congress last year. But some of the proposed regulations would make it "almost impossible" for the ABLE plans to succeed, Stenberg said.
Those rules, which haven't been finalized, would require states to determine whether a participant's disability is accepted and what expenses are authorized under the plan. Stenberg said that places a heavy burden on the state and those participating in the plans, and should instead be handled through the federal auditing process.
Stenberg has written the IRS to express his concerns, as did state Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, who sponsored the bill to allow ABLE accounts in Nebraska.
Stenberg said he is optimistic the IRS will make changes.
Stephen Czepa, a 20-year-old who has a mild form of autism, said an ABLE account will help him "prepare for the life I want to build."
He lives with his parents, and five days a week they drive him from their house in Papillion to his part-time job at Marriott's worldwide reservation center near 90th and Blondo streets in Omaha, where he helps with filing for the human resources department.
ABLE accounts will allow his parents to get him on a budget and qualify for supplemental security income when he turns 21.
One of Czepa's three little brothers has a similar form of autism.
"Hopefully this program helps him, too," Czepa said.