OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts urged Nebraska lawmakers on Tuesday to uphold his veto of a bill that would let more residents collect food-assistance benefits, arguing that it would slow the state's recovery from the pandemic.

The Republican governor said in his veto letter that the measure would create a disincentive for recipients to seek better-paying jobs at a time when many businesses are desperate for workers.

“We should remove any incentives that would slow reopening, regrowth, re-employment and reconnecting," he said in his letter to lawmakers. "Whether intended or not, (the bill) discourages Nebraskans from returning to work."

The veto issued Monday drew swift condemnation from advocates for the poor, who argued that many recipients are working families with children who are still struggling because of the pandemic. They also pointed out that the expansion would be paid with existing money and have no impact on the state budget. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, is paid with federal money.

“At a time when Nebraskans are still struggling to feed themselves and their children amidst the fallout of COVID-19, it makes no sense to veto a bill that would make it easier for families to earn more money and step down SNAP benefits more proportionally," said Eric Savaiano, an advocate for food and nutrition assistance access with the group Nebraska Appleseed.

Supporters also noted that the measure was temporary, with an expiration date of Oct. 1, 2023, although Ricketts countered that government benefits are almost never revoked once they've been offered.

Ricketts faced similar criticism in September when he announced that Nebraska would be the only state to discontinue emergency SNAP benefits made available under a federal coronavirus relief package. He later relented, however, as the number of Nebraska cases and hospitalizations surged and state officials temporarily retightened some social-distancing restrictions.

Ricketts argued in September, and again on Tuesday, that expanding SNAP wasn't necessary because Nebraska has maintained one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates throughout the pandemic.

The bill would increase the maximum gross income to qualify for SNAP to 165% of the federal poverty level — $43,725 for a family of four. Under current Nebraska law, the same family could only qualify if they make 130% of the federal level, or $34,450. Nebraska is one of 19 conservative states that set the cutoff at 130%, the lowest level nationally. The highest cutoff is 200%, a level adopted by a bipartisan collection of 17 states.

The measure's sponsor, state Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, announced on Twitter that he will seek to override the veto when lawmakers reconvene on Wednesday. McCollister, a Republican who has repeatedly defied his party and criticized President Donald Trump, has argued that the bill would help an estimated 3,945 families who are still struggling in the pandemic.

Ricketts also urged lawmakers to uphold his vetoes of a bill that would require the state to take over management of Omaha Public Schools' troubled pension system and legislation to expand eligibility for federal heating assistance.


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