Flooding dings Nebraska budget, but costs manageable so far

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The flooding that devastated huge swaths of Nebraska may put a dent in the state budget and force the postponement of other expenses, but officials said the recovery costs should be manageable.

Lawmakers are bracing for a likely wave of state agency budget requests in the next fiscal year as the state government’s share of the disaster recovery costs become clearer.

Members of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee want to ensure the state has enough cash to handle new flood-related expenses as well as future weather disasters, said Sen. John Stinner, the committee’s chairman.

“It became a priority, obviously,” he said. “Other things that we might have done were left out of the budget.”

For instance, Stinner said lawmakers may postpone some funding increases to the state Department of Health and Human Services that aren’t immediately needed.

He said the Appropriations Committee is proposing an $11 million boost to the state’s disaster response fund over the next two years to replenish money that was used to help local communities hit by flooding.

The account held around $3.9 million when the flooding began, and state officials have since obligated about $3.5 million, leaving an available balance of $400,000. The fund is used for immediate recovery efforts, such as debris removal and rescue operations, but also provides matching funds that are required to receive federal disaster aid.

Lawmakers typically try to maintain a balance of $5 million, but state emergency officials predict the fund could require an additional $3 million to $5 million in the next fiscal year and another $5 million the year after that.

The Nebraska State Patrol expects to see an uptick in overtime and travel expenses as a result of the flood but doesn’t yet have an exact estimate, said spokesman Cody Thomas. Troopers worked longer hours to respond to last month’s flooding and blizzard, and some were dispatched to other hard-hit parts of the state.

Thomas said the federal government will likely reimburse some of the expense.

“There was quite a bit of extra manpower on the roads,” he said.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation estimated last week that it will face an estimated $100 million in repair and rebuilding costs, although the federal government could cover up to 80 percent of those expenses.

The amount the federal government reimburses is still unclear, however, because state and federal officials are still sorting through all the projects and deadlines, said Jeni Campana, a department spokeswoman. The state’s $100 million estimate is substantially lower than the original projection, which pegged the cost at $429 million.

Campana said the department has completed a lot of the work. As of Friday, all but 19 of the 2,000 miles of highway that were closed due to flooding have reopened. The department will pay its share of the repair costs out of the state’s highway cash fund, which holds around $600 million.

Campana said the department is working to absorb the cost of flood repairs without disrupting other planned road projects.

“We’re still trying to operate with business as usual,” she said. “We’re feeling pretty confident we’re not going to see a huge impact.”