At the end of the 2021 legislative session, the Nebraska legislature overrode vetoes by Gov. Pete Ricketts of two anti-poverty bills raising the income eligibility threshold for low-income assistance programs. HQUALITY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Commentary

TOM VENZOR (NCC): Legislature overrides governor’s vetoes of poverty bills

I’m happy to report the legislative session is completed. The end of the session, as usual, was full of excitement. Senators, lobbyists and advocates worked hard in the closing days of the session to advance and kill legislation.

Among the waning days’ excitement were several vetoes from Gov. Pete Ricketts, each of which was overridden by the Legislature. Two of these vetoes were on legislative bills the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) supported.

So what were these two bills? What were the governor’s objections to them? And why did the NCC support them?

The two bills were LB108 and LB306. Both pertain to raising the income eligibility threshold for low-income assistance programs.

LB108, introduced by Sen. John McCollister (Omaha), increases the threshold for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamps program) from 130% of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 165% for the next two years. LB306, introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt (Plymouth), increases the threshold for the low-income energy assistance program from 130% FPL to 150%.

For context, 135% FPL is the equivalent of a family of four with a household annual gross income of $26,500.

In his veto messages, the governor articulated his rationale for opposing these bills. Regarding LB108, he made three principal arguments. First, he argued that LB108, while increasing the income eligibility threshold to apply for food assistance, still required the applicant to meet another 100% net income eligibility threshold. He claimed this would lead to some disappointed applicants who meet the first threshold but fail to meet the second. Second, he argued that the increase would disincentivize people from working and create dependency on government welfare. Third, he argued that increasing assistance to more people would undermine those who have the highest needs for assistance.

The governor’s stated issues with LB306 were largely centered on concerns that the low-income energy assistance funding would come from one-time funds. These funds would run out and result in less funds available to serve all qualified recipients.

For the NCC, LB108 and LB306 were both small, but important steps toward ensuring some basic material needs of the poor are met. Both Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities, the charitable arms of the Diocese of Lincoln and the Archdiocese of Omaha, respectively, had record-setting years in 2020 for poverty assistance. For example, Catholic Charities of Omaha went from providing around 200,000 pounds of food in 2019 to nearly 1.5 million pounds in 2020. Even with that increase, the organization still did not meet the basic nutritional needs of the poor in the archdiocese.

What we have seen as a Church that walks with the poor – accompanying them as Christ himself did – is that the needs of the poor far exceed the ability of individual persons, families, churches and other local entities (such as nonprofits and businesses) to fulfill. Catholic social teaching recognizes that where lower (more local) forms of community cannot provide a particular need, it is right and just that higher forms of community step in to assist them. In other words, LB108 and LB306 answer a justifiable need for the government to increase its assistance to the poor, to supplement – not supplant – the local efforts of churches, nonprofits and businesses, fulfilling their moral obligation to provide preferential care for the poor.

As with any bill that successfully overrides the governor’s veto, the bill goes into law as prescribed by the legislation. In the cases of LB108 and LB306, both bills went into effect immediately as they contained “emergency clauses.” Both bills will be important supports for those who find themselves in serious need of assistance from the broader community of the state.

As a bit of a postscript, I want to mention that while the regular legislative session is over, the Legislature will reconvene in late summer or early fall for a special session. At that time, they will engage in their once-every-10-year redistricting process, in which they redraw boundary lines for state political offices. This is an important moment for the state and one worthy of our attention.