LINCOLN — Nebraska’s fight against the novel coronavirus got an $83.6 million shot in the arm Wednesday.
State legislators passed the emergency appropriations measure on a 45-0 vote and sent it on to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who quickly signed it into law, freeing up the dollars for immediate use.
The governor and Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk praised senators for acting promptly and working together to make sure the state has the resources needed to battle the sometimes deadly virus.
“Here in Nebraska, we know how to get things done,” Ricketts said.
Scheer had a catch in his voice as he thanked colleagues for being willing to meet, despite the risk of large gatherings, to get the appropriations approved.
He suspended the regular legislative session on March 12 because of the risk. Many lawmakers are in high-risk groups because of their age or because of underlying health conditions. Scheer noted that the four senators who did not make it Wednesday were all at higher risk from the virus.
“We’re doing what we need to do in the time it needs to be done,” he said.
The largest portion of the appropriations, $38 million, will be used to buy personal protective equipment for first responders in the state’s communities and to provide support to local health departments as they beef up staffing, expand call centers and add more laptops and other technology.
Other money will pay for additional staffing in the public health division of the State Department of Health and Human Services, especially in the areas of epidemiology, emergency preparedness, communications and contracts with interpreters. Those areas are at the front lines of coronavirus response.
The package will pay for the overtime and additional staff in state care facilities that would be needed if regular staff get sick or need to be quarantined. The facilities include veterans homes, state psychiatric hospitals, the Beatrice State Developmental Center and state institutions for juvenile offenders.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center will get money to pay for equipment, staff and systems needed to expand testing for coronavirus. The money will pay for a sample extraction and detection robot, automated laboratory equipment and ultraviolet light boxes used to clean protective masks for reuse.
Lawmakers also included $25 million to be held in reserve and used as needed. The money gives Ricketts the flexibility to respond quickly to emerging needs.
Scheer said he does not know when he will try to finish the legislative session. The timing will depend on guidance from health officials and others.
“I want to make sure we are safe when we do come back,” he said.
When the session does resume, he said it would not be business as usual. First on the agenda will be finishing work on the state budget. After that, Scheer said he will put the priority on debating bills that need to be passed this year.
He urged colleagues to work cooperatively and collaboratively during the rest of the session, noting that his plan would not have any of the usual “cooling-off” days. He plans to meet six days a week for two weeks, followed by one five-day week. He promised that he would not schedule those days during the two weeks before the May 12 primary, so incumbent senators would have time to campaign.
But in a sign of things to come, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the Revenue Committee chairwoman, filed her latest version of a proposal to revamp property taxes and school aid. And Sen. Ernie Chambers vowed that he would return to his usual form when senators reconvene. He did not speak on the emergency appropriations measure.