Pillen letter to Nebraska Environmental Trust labeled ‘unusual’ and ‘political interference’ | Nebraska Examiner

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LINCOLN – Members of a watchdog are calling Gov. Jim Pillen’s letter to the Nebraska Environmental Protection Board “unusual” and “political interference.”

Pillen gave final approval in August to revise the rules and regulations governing the trust, which gives out about $20 million a year to environmental, conservation and research groups.

But the approval came with a letter — an unusual addition to the executive order — calling on the Republican governor and pork producer trust board to allocate funds to capital improvements and projects that have the highest impact and “long-term public benefit.”

Save money for operations

The letter urged the board — 12 of its 14 members are appointed or employed by the governor — to eliminate grants to “recurring entities” for operating expenses.

“Providing long-term public access and environmental benefits to these areas should be the focus of NET funding,” the letter states.

While the governor controls most of those sitting on the board, the letter’s apparently authoritarian nature has been criticized by members of the conservation group Friends of the Environment.

The group, which has been critical of the trust’s latest moves, branded the letter to the board, which is supposed to consider grant applications large and small, “political interference” and “inappropriate”.

In the year Randy Moody, secretary of the Friends group, which led the campaign to get the voter trust passed in 1993, said it’s naive to think the governor doesn’t have influence over board members’ decisions.

‘Clear Intervention’

But Pillen said the letter was a “clear intrusion” into what should have been an independent discretionary decision by the board.

“It’s a non-subtle way of telling them what to do,” Moody said.

Moody added that the trust’s original purpose was to support all kinds of environmental and conservation projects, not just large projects and capital improvements.

Dale Williamson, a former state agency director involved with the Friends group — also involved in establishing Environmental Protection — said such a letter from a governor to a state agency at the time of signing such legislative changes is “really unusual.”

When laws change, it’s usually up to the agency to interpret how to comply with them, said former state Sen. Bob Wickersham, a founding member of the Friends group.

A spokesman for Pillen and representatives of the trust dismissed the letter as out of the ordinary.

The goal was clarification.

Laura Strimel, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the governor’s letter was an effort to “clarify” the role of the trust and emphasize its purpose. It is listed in the state lawIt is “long term environmental focus”.

The trust, state law says, must support public and private efforts that “will have the greatest impact on Nebraska’s future environmental quality.” A paragraph in Trust rules It calls for funding projects that deliver “long-term” benefits, defined as more than 10 years.

But the trust rules also require projects that provide “clear and direct” environmental benefits.

The trust’s executive director, Carl Elmshauser, said the letter was simply a “cover letter” for the governor’s approval of the new non-newsworthy rules.

Columbus business owner Jim Hellbusch, who chairs the local trust board, said he saw nothing inappropriate in the letter.

We go by the law and the guidelines,” Hellbusch said. “How other people interpret it is up to them.

It wouldn’t be the first time there has been a clash between the governor’s office and loyalists.

Past disputes

In 2021, then-Gov. Pat Ricketts declined to re-nominate board member Jerry Lauritzen of Omaha because she disagreed with the governor’s opposition on permanent security arrangements.

In the past, the Trust has provided funds for such simple works, which would prevent a farm or ranch from using the land for development and provide some tax benefits.

Also in the past the Trust has approved some grants for salaries and for people working in recycling or conservation groups.

Trust He is being shot. To increase the number of grant applications in recent years It is considered “not eligible” for financial support And refusing to give away the full $20 million he gets from the state lottery every year. of Failures included some applications. Accepted before.

The trust’s surplus funds have increased, prompting Pillen to get permission to transfer $14 million from the trust to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources this year. It was the move. It was criticized by critics as a “mockery” for the original purpose of Trust. The management of Pilane will use the money for the right purposes, protecting the natural resources of the region.

Moody, then a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, helped push legislation establishing the trust through the Legislature three decades ago.

He said the trust had “gone too far” by deeming many grant applications ineligible or not eligible for funding, and that the past two governors had exerted more influence on the board, directing more benefits to agriculture and large-scale projects and less to the environment.

“The idea was to give the smaller entities an opportunity to participate as well,” Moody said. “The call should be made by the governing board, not the governor.

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