Governor alleges vote-trading to get Omaha sewer money

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Gov. Dave Heineman accused Nebraska lawmakers of trading votes and making “sweetheart deals” Wednesday and said Appropriations Committee Chairman Heath Mello is working to divert state water funds to help Omaha pay for its $2 billion sewer system overhaul.

Gov. Dave Heineman

The Appropriations Committee has approved $31 million for water projects, $21 million of which is in the budget ($10 million from the state’s cash reserve fund and $11 million in general funds). Another $10 million would go to the Resources Development Fund for water projects already planned, but unfunded.

The governor said Wednesday on KLIN that “supposedly a bunch will go to Omaha’s sewer separation project” and then noted the appropriations chairman is from Omaha.

“There’s a lot going on here and we’re gonna get it exposed before it’s all done,” Heineman said.

Mello, D-Omaha, acknowledged he’s negotiating with Sen. Tom Carlson and the Natural Resources Committee to guarantee some of the water funds would go toward Omaha’s sewer project. Carlson’s bill, LB1098, which is still in the committee, would retool the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission and require that water projects be funded as recommended by a water task force.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello

“It’s the largest infrastructure water project in the state,” Mello said. “Because it’s a water infrastructure project, it should qualify for new funding.”

Omaha residents have seen major sewer rate increases to pay for the project, which the feds ordered because in some parts of the city sewers carry stormwater and sewage. During heavy rain untreated sewage gets dumped into the Missouri River and Papillion Creek.

Mello said Douglas and Sarpy County residents are paying millions more in state sales taxes as a result of the rate increases, and they should get some of it back.

“Sounds like the governor’s willing to tax ratepayers and the city of Omaha tens of millions and not provide any of it back to help pay for the project,” Mello said.

Mello is trying to get 10 percent of the $11 million, or $1.1 million, in general funds directed to Omaha.

“I’m disappointed to hear the governor thinks there’s some nefarious plot,” Mello said.

The governor was also critical of lawmakers for approving $136 million in new spending and only $25 million in tax relief. He said the Appropriations Committee has changed under Mello’s leadership, saying when it was under his now-Lt. Gov. LaVon Heidemann’s leadership, he “held the line on spending.”

“This year, it’s ‘How much money do you need to get your vote?’ ” Heineman said.

Mello said lawmakers have addressed water needs, deferred maintenance in Game and Parks and a waiting list of developmentally disabled people needing services.

“As a lame duck governor, I guess this is a path that he’s chosen,” he said. “I’m not searching for a legacy the way the governor is now. … We put out a balanced approach… the Legislature is leading on these issues the governor has not led on.”

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that Governor Heineman is attacking the Legislature for its independence and trying to solve state problems that he has not solved and worked on in his nine years as governor.”

Mello has, however, been mentioned as a possible future mayoral candidate in Omaha. But he says with a newborn baby, that’s the last thing on his mind.

“It’s disappointing that he has no problem taking money from ratepayers, but is not wanting to give any back,” he said. “I’m glad to see the Natural Resources Committee is considering Omaha’s unique situation as part of the compromise.”

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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