Friday, March 24th marks the 54th day of the 105th Legislative Session. We spent most of the day on Final Reading, which is the final passage of bills that have worked their way through the first two rounds of votes. These bills were for the most part non-controversial, and included the final passage of LB 203, which included language from my bill LB 301. Both bills advanced through the Business and Labor Committee, which I chair.
Speaking of the Committee, we have finished with our public hearings this week. All in all, we’ve heard 32 bills in our committee, with 16 bills advancing to the floor. Of the others, there is still work that needs to be done and we may revisit them next year.
One of the bills which was passed through the committee and to the floor was LB 518, a bill introduced by Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg which would adopt the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act.
One of my main goals is to help grow and strengthen Nebraska’s entire state-wide economy. This includes both rural and urban economies. One of the major hurdles for our rural areas is the access to quality, affordable housing. During my conversations with economic development professionals, I have heard that many jobs in rural Nebraska go unfilled due to this lack of housing.
A report from the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) shows the cost of new construction for single family homes was highest in the Panhandle region of the state. The report also shows that the cost of new construction homes in that area averaged $248,000 compared to $198,000 in the metro areas such as Lincoln and Omaha.
This bill is designed to expand the availability of housing options by creating a grant program to stimulate housing development in rural areas of our state. A nonprofit development organization would apply to the Department of Economic Development for funds to develop workforce housing through new construction, rehabbing existing homes, or building rental units. The bill requires a one-to-one match with local funds to ensure communities are behind such housing and that it is needed.
One of my considerations with each and every bill is how fiscally responsible it is. This bill transfers $7 million in unallocated funds from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Established in 1996 in response to concerns about the effect of poor quality housing on the economic development of the state, the fund has supported 524 grants totaling more than $120 million for low-income housing.
A recent report from the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee states there is currently more than $11 million in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund above the existing commitments for grants. According to Sen. Williams, the Department of Economic Development is comfortable the funds transferred by LB 518 would not adversely impact any current or future obligations or needs.
During our Committee hearing, a number of groups testified in support of the bill – including the Nebraska Economic Developers Association, the State Chamber, Nebraska Bankers Association, the Nebraska Housing Developers Association and others. The bill advanced from committee by a vote of 7-0 and shortly after, I named this bill as one of the Committee’s priority bills.
This bill will help rural areas of our state provide the housing they need to help Nebraska grow.