June 21, 2024

Senators fight over north Omaha redevelopment funds

A fight over who controls more than $100 million intended to revitalize north Omaha spilled onto the floor of the Legislature Wednesday.

The fight centers on plans by the state Department of Economic Development to build a business park in economically impoverished north Omaha, near Eppley Airfield. Sen. Justin Wayne, who represents part of the area, says the department’s plan to create sites suitable for business development won’t create jobs, contrary to what the Legislature intended when it set aside money for revitalization two years ago.

“This is a money grab, and I’m tired of the poverty pimps takin’ out my community all the time. That’s what we’re doing again,” Wayne said.

Wayne and Sen. Terrell McKinney, who represents another part of the area, want to take money for the project away from the Department of Economic Development and give it to Omaha’s Inland Port Authority. That’s a newly-authorized body, to be appointed by the Omaha Mayor and approved by the city council, that Wayne says would be more responsive to the community than the state.

The proposed transfer drew support from Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar.

“The money that’s been allotted for this project was clearly intended to create jobs for an area of the state that really needs it. As a fiscal conservative I’m seeing $90 million be spent to create zero jobs,” Slama said.

The Department of Economic Development, or DED, estimates after the business park is built, it will then generate 1,600 jobs. Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha argued for sticking with the current plans.

“We should be not trying to take a victory and turn it into a defeat here. This is not going to be a perfect process. But I appreciate the work that DED has done. I appreciate the work that our committee has done. I appreciate the process, and I believe we should keep moving forward with the process and not at this point, stop it or delay it for these kinds of reasons,” McDonnell said.

Wayne denied that changing who controls the purse strings would delay the business park. He said unlike DED’s decision making, the Inland Port Authority would be subject to the open meetings act to facilitate public involvement. And he criticized a separate project he said is part of DED’s plans, involving an organization backed by Susie Buffett, daughter of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

“The Buffett’s special nonprofit called Girls Inc. is getting $20 million to build a new nonprofit facility with zero new jobs. So we’re going to tax everyday people and give the Buffett’s nonprofit $20 million. That’s going to be announced on Friday,” Wayne said.

Taxing “everyday people” is a reference to Gov. Jim Pillen’s openness to raising sales taxes. Asked for reaction to Wayne’s statement, a spokesperson for Pillen simply confirmed that the governor would be announcing grants on Friday. Officials of Girls Inc. declined comment.

Sen. John Lowe of Kearney criticized the process Wayne and McKinney used to bring the issue up so early in the session, by scheduling an early hearing and amending an unrelated bill:

“This is an end around. This is a way to get it through. This is a way to sneak it up so it’s early on the agenda. And I’m not in favor of it,” Lowe said.

Wayne argued that it was similar to the process that Lowe supported to pass tax cutting legislation two years ago.

Lowe also objected that Wayne and McKinney’s amendment would give the Inland Port Authority access to the interest earned from big pots of money that have been set aside to build the Perkins County Canal and a new state prison.

“These two projects, the Perkins County Canal and the state prison, take many years. And as we’ve seen, our costs keep rising. One way to keep up with that cost is the interest that this money is now earning. We need to keep going or we’re going to be coming back to ask for more funds. And I believe that is the purpose of this amendment is for these two projects to die,” Lowe said.

But Wayne noted that the Legislature has already approved the interest from funds for the prison and canal to go to revitalization projects — just through the Department of Economic Development, not the Inland Port Authority.

“The idea that this amendment is trying to kill the Perkins Canal is completely false, because it’s already in statute that the interest is going to the North and South Omaha economic recovery fund,” he said.

Nevertheless, Wayne said he was willing to negotiate about that. It was not clear Wednesday afternoon when the issue would be scheduled again for debate.

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