Sep 16, 2020 5:41 PM

Report: Nebraska COVID-19 relief tracking tools lack transparency

Posted Sep 16, 2020 5:41 PM

From the Platte Institute

OMAHA, NE — Nebraskans have received $9.9 billion in federal COVID-19 relief since March, and that number will increase if Congress approves an additional package of relief measures. But a new Platte Institute report says that the state’s current website for tracking the relief effort’s spending falls short when it comes to transparency and providing the public, the media, and policymakers useful information about where the money is going.

The report, Where is the Money Going? Tracking COVID-19 Relief Funds in Nebraska, is now available at PlatteInstitute.org/Policy and is attached in PDF format.On July 15, the Ricketts administration launched a website at coronavirus.nebraska.gov that included features for detailing the use of federal relief funds.

As of this writing, an analytic tool for exploring data on CARES Act programs remains unavailable, and documentation on the main site only accounts for about $1 billion of the $9.9 billion in pandemic-related assistance. CARES Act and other COVID-19 assistance in Nebraska totals more than twice as much as the state’s current General Fund spending.

As one example of the inconsistencies in the data, the U.S. Department of Education states that Nebraska received $295.2 million in emergency education funding, while state documents only account for $208.2 million once K-12 and higher education stabilization and nutrition programs are combined.

"The state’s current website is far from an adequate resource for informing taxpayers about how COVID-19 relief is being spent in Nebraska,” said Platte Institute Policy Director Sarah Curry, the author of the report.“The CARES Act has brought an especially large amount of one-time federal funding to Nebraska that demands transparency, but Nebraska also receives a large share of its budget from Washington every year, and the state is not doing enough to inventory those funds either,” said Curry.  

Nebraska has received an average of 31% of its total budget from the federal government over the last ten years, which is a typical amount for states to receive.

Curry proposes that the state should audit and inventory all federal funds allocated to the state, providing information on the intended use of the funds, and the state matching or maintenance of effort requirements associated with accepting the federal money.

In 2017, a proposal to create a publicly-accessible inventory of all federal funds allocated to the state won first-round approval in the Legislature but failed to become law.

“While all this money has been entering the state for decades, there is no comprehensive report or website for taxpayers or lawmakers to see where the money is going and if it is accomplishing its intended purpose,” said Curry.“Had the federal funds inventory been adopted in 2017, the COVID-19 relief program, as well as federal funds used for the 2019 flood and blizzard relief in Nebraska, would have been subject to more complete scrutiny. Instead, taxpayers, the media, and the Legislature have had to rely on what information the executive branch has chosen to provide,” said Curry.