Prospects for gaining as much as $75 million in state help in financing North Platte’s meatpacking project were clouded after Gov. Pete Ricketts’ Friday visit to North Platte.
With three project organizers in his Lee Bird Field audience, the governor repeated the vocal support he gave Sustainable Beef LLC in Thursday’s State of the State address.
But Ricketts said his special budget request for using federal COVID-19 funds will include $15 million aimed at the $325 million project’s water and sewer requirements.
North Platte state Sen. Mike Groene’s Legislative Bill 783 calls for tapping $75 million in American Relief Plan funds by pointing to the pandemic’s impact on beef supplies and prices.
Ricketts said he and his aides fear that argument wouldn’t hold up if legally challenged. It’s clearer that ARP aid can be used for Sustainable Beef’s water and sewer needs, he said.
“ARP only lets certain things be covered,” Ricketts said, adding that the law Congress passed last March also says COVID-19 aid for businesses must go to existing firms.
Sustainable Beef organized Sept. 29, 2020, six months after the pandemic settled in across Nebraska, according to Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office records.
CEO David Briggs of Alliance, who attended Ricketts’ Thursday speech at the State Capitol, said the $15 million in Ricketts’ proposal would help install the beef plant’s system to pretreat its wastewater onsite.
The pretreated wastewater then would travel the short distance to North Platte’s sewer treatment plant, he said. Organizers plan to buy a retired sewer lagoon from the city as the site of the 1,500-head-per-day plant at Newberry Access and Golden Road.
“We’re very fortunate for the support the governor’s given us the whole time we’ve worked on this project,” said Briggs, who was in Friday’s airport audience with local co-organizers Rusty Kemp and Trey Wasserburger.
Both Briggs and Ricketts said it’ll be up to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee to judge how the state should spend its $1.04 billion share of COVID-19 aid.
Groene, still in Lincoln Friday for the Legislature’s daily session, said he’ll take his argument for a full $75 million to that panel.
ARP also “addresses stressed industries” and how they can qualify for its funds, he told The Telegraph. Ricketts “included the easily justified sewer and water portion of Sustainable Beef.”
Also Friday, Ricketts said he considers a major new state school aid plan “dead on arrival” because it doesn’t include tighter controls on districts’ property tax requests.
Two Columbus school administrators drew up the plan, introduced last week as LBs 890 and 891 by Sens. Lynne Walz of Fremont, a Democrat, and Republican Sens. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha and Mark Kolterman of Seward.
Among other things, the plan would restore a form of per-student state aid — absent from the aid formula since 1990 — and renew a long-abandoned pledge to return 20% of patrons’ income taxes to their districts.
A November projection of the Columbus plan’s impact showed massive boosts in aid — along with equally dramatic potential cuts in school property tax rates — for almost all of Nebraska’s 244 districts.
But “their plan is not viable,” replied Ricketts, who has said local governments shouldn’t be allowed to raise annual tax requests by more than 3% a year.
A 2020 revision of a state-aid reform plan by Groene and Omaha Sen. Lou Ann Linehan included the types of property tax restraints he wants, the governor added.
The Groene-Linehan plan, which also called for restoring per-student aid, also would have boosted state help for many rural districts under Nebraska Department of Education projections.
Its original 2019 version drew fire from Ricketts, who objected to raising state sales taxes and trimming the list of sales tax exemptions to help fund it. Nebraska’s largest school districts opposed both versions.
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