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Gov. Pete Ricketts gave a briefing this week on his recommendations for how Nebraska should distribute the $1.84 billion the state government has received through the federal CARES Act for virus-related relief. 

The federal government is providing significant money — $10.8 billion — to Nebraska to address the economic slowdown and the virus emergency. If properly distributed and used, these dollars can provide major support for communities and households, for needs including health care, aid to small businesses, rural telecommunication needs and help for the homeless.

It’s crucial, however, that all parties follow federal requirements as closely as possible. There are strings attached — rightly, to ensure financial accountability. Local governments can’t use the federal money merely to make up for lost revenue, for example.

In a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts outlined a constructive approach for distributing the money. He also rightly plans for an outside auditing firm to monitor the aid allocation — a good step, given the enormous scale of the federal aid and the need for responsible handling of the money.

One of the most important supports from the federal aid is $427 million to help replenish Nebraska’s unemployment trust fund in the wake of the tremendous virus-related surge in unemployment claims. To cite only a few examples of other needs: $85 million for agencies and nonprofits helping low-income and homeless individuals; increased Medicaid dollars to cover health needs; flexible grants to small businesses and livestock producers; funds for worker retraining; and $40 million to help offset the installation cost for telecommunications fiber to communities lacking such service.

It’s encouraging that the Governor’s Office is negotiating with the Douglas County Board on specific aid to the City of Omaha. The state and Douglas County each will contribute to the aid allocation that Omaha ultimately receives. The state government has received just over $1 billion for virus-related support to local governments, and Douglas County has received $166 million. Douglas County, to its credit, plans to use the same auditing firm as the state. It’s vital that Omaha receive fair reimbursement, given the enormous hit it’s taken so far.

Only a minority of Nebraska’s county governments currently have offices open. Ricketts emphasizes that those counties must reopen their offices by June 8 in order to be eligible for federal aid.

One problem is that some federal guidance so far on use of the money is difficult to interpret. A good illustration is the woefully unclear direction for reimbursing local governments for virus-related services deemed “necessary”: “The Department of the Treasury understands this term broadly to mean that the expenditure is reasonably necessary for its intended use in the reasonable judgment of the government officials responsible for spending Fund payments.” That’s bureaucratic gibberish, not clear instruction.

Nebraskans, meanwhile, must be sure to follow all requirements as closely as possible. This money can be a great help, but as Ricketts cautions, Nebraska must avoid having federal authorities intervene next year to claw back funds improperly used.

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