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ACCESSNebraska Special Investigative Committee Begins Work
One tool the Legislature uses to conduct legislative oversight over critical issues facing the state is through the use of special investigative committees. These committees are created through legislation passed during the session, and unlike many other committees or working groups formed through legislation, are solely comprised of senators who are selected by the Executive Board of the Legislature. In general, these special investigative committees exist for a short period of time, usually between sessions.
This session, the Legislature created three special investigative committees to examine a variety of issues including tax incentive evaluations (LR 444), ACCESSNebraska (LR 400) , as well as policies and procedures of the Nebraska Department of Corrections as they apply to the Nikko Jenkins case (LR 424). I serve as a member of the ACCESSNebraska Special Investigative Committee.
In 2009, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services launched ACCESSNebraska in an attempt to modernize and streamline our public assistance application process. The system changed how the Department processes applications for programs including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid and heating assistance for elderly. ACCESSNebraska replaced a face-to-face application process with a system based around phone and online applications.
Unfortunately, the system has not worked as intended. Long wait times, busy signals and lost documentation have plagued the new system. Critical help for elderly and vulnerable individuals gets denied and delayed when this assistance is most needed. A 2013 Legislative Audit report found that between 2012 and 2013, the average wait time increased more than 50%, with an average wait time of 45 minutes in August 2013. The report also found that the Department failed to implement LB 825 (Law 2012), a bill that provided for local office assistance and dedicated caseworkers to help ameliorate some of challenges facing the ACCESSNebraska system.
In response to this report, the Legislature adopted LR 400, creating a special investigative committee to provide additional oversight and monitoring.
Since session ended in April, the ACCESSNebraska Committee has met twice to begin work on this issue. Next month, I and other committee members will visit the six ACCESSNebraska call center and document processing sites. If you or someone you know has a personal story to share regarding their experience with ACCESSNebraska, please contact me at (402) 471-2615 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming Discussions on Unfunded Mandates
One of the interim studies I introduced last session focuses on unfunded and underfunded mandates to counties and the impact these mandates have on property tax rates. The Omaha World-Herald recently published an editorial regarding unfunded mandates, a copy of which can be found here: http://www.omaha.com/opinion/world-herald-editorial-big-pressure-on-counties/article_8ba671c6-4b55-5580-9855-e8216d38f9e8.html
Earlier this summer we met with Fred Uhe and Sarpy County officials to better understand the specific challenges facing Sarpy County. With the assistance of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and the Nebraska Association of County Officials, we will hold a series of conference calls with county officials across the state later this month. We are especially interested in learning from the discussion which of the unfunded mandates are the most burdensome and suggestions on addressing the mandates and alleviating pressure on property taxes.
New Website Shines Light on Contracts
Last week, the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) introduced a new website to bring greater transparency and accountability to state contracts. The website can be found at https://statecontracts.nebraska.gov/
With its launch, citizens are able to monitor and review state contracts from any computer or mobile device with internet access free of charge. Nebraskans are now able to search contracts by vendor, agency, and dollar amount. This website was created as a result of legislation I introduced, and the Legislature passed, during the 2013 session.
I appreciate the diligent work of Bo Botelho and his colleagues at DAS and the cooperation of all the state agencies that makes this new level of transparency possible. It will be up to citizens, journalists, business owners, and fellow lawmakers to use that information well.
A copy of the Omaha World-Herald story regarding the new website can be found here:
Preparation for Subsidized Employment Program Continues
During the 2013 legislative session, the Legislature passed LB 368, a bill I introduced to establish a subsidized employment pilot program for low-income workers. LB 368 creates new job opportunities for low-income Nebraskans and allows businesses, particularly small businesses, to expand while minimizing risks involved in hiring and training new employees.
Subsidized employment programs in other states have increased earning potential of program participants, encouraged long-term employment and decreased reliance on public assistance. In Washington, for example, the average income of former participants rose 60% during their first two years in the workforce, which represented a 148% increase in income compared to pre-participation income. In Mississippi, subsidized employment programs created eighteen hundred (1800) new jobs with an average wage of $8.65 an hour.* A study of Philadelphia’s subsidized employment program found statistically significant decreases in receipt of TANF payments and TANF assistance overall among program participants, performing much better than the control group and individuals who received pre-employment services.*
Experience in other states also shows that these programs help small businesses. In a survey of employers who participated in subsidized employment programs, 6 out of 10 indicated the subsidy encouraged them to create new positions within their company.
LB 368 allowed the Department to contract with a non-profit organization to administer the program. Recently, the Department issued an “intent to contract” statement naming Goodwill as their non-profit partner in this program. This week I met with Goodwill employees who will help administer the program. I am excited about the potential this program offers to both the employer and employee and look forward to sharing some initial outcomes later in the months ahead.
Second Interim Intern Hired
This week, we hired a second legislative intern, Erika Roan, for a legislative research internship. Erika joins our other intern, Addison, this summer. Together they will assist our office with research on our interim studies and potential legislation for next session.
Erika will be entering her second year at the University of Chicago this fall, majoring in Environmental Studies. She is originally from Humphrey, NE where she graduated from Humphrey High School in 2012. There, she was involved in the National Honors Society, Student Council, band, volleyball and FFA. At UChicago, she is an active member of Alpha Phi Omega, the UChicago Body Project, and SAGE (Sustainable Acts for a Greener Earth). Her plans after graduation in the Spring of 2017 are still undecided; she looks forward to gaining valuable experience this summer working as a legislative research intern in order to help her decide post-graduation plans.
All the best,
*Stimulating Opportunity: An Evaluation of ARRA-Funded Subsidized Employment Programs.” Economic Mobility Corporation September 2013.
**Bloom, Dan. “Alternative Welfare-to-Work Strategies for the Hard-to-Employ TANF Recipients.” MDRC. APPAM Annual Research Conference Presentation. November 2008.