LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers would take control of the state environmental fund from the Attorney General's Office under two bills debated Wednesday.
Several senators told the Judiciary Committee that the Legislature should have the right to decide who grants money from the state environmental fund, which consists of environmental fines and settlements.
The issue surfaced after Attorney General Jon Bruning approved a $100,000 grant for an industry-backed farm group late last year. Bruning's office has sole authority to approve project grants when money is available for environmental safety, training, public awareness and other issues.
The bills were introduced by state Sens. Heath Mello of Omaha and Ken Haar of Malcolm.
"I wouldn't imagine that the attorney general would do something illegal, but the process needs to be transparent," Haar said.
Bruning has defended his decision to award the money to We Support Agriculture, a farm-industry coalition created to portray livestock-raising practices in a positive light and counter criticism by the Humane Society of the United States.
David Cookson, the chief deputy attorney general, said Wednesday that his office did nothing wrong and should retain the granting authority.
"We have followed the law to the letter of the law and to the spirit of the law," he told the Judiciary Committee.
Mello's bill would use all fine and settlement monies to fund K-12 education and restore legislative oversight in settlement payments.
"For many Nebraskans, this was the first we had learned of the fund's existence," Mello said. "A sub-fund was created without direct approval from the legislature."
Haar's bill said the process should be spelled out in law, with the money going to the environmental trust fund that would be monitored by the Legislature.
"The first I learned about this situation was when a reporter called me," he said. "Gifting to an organization, it doesn't feel right."
In 2003, the Attorney General's Office created a special unit to enforce the state's agricultural, environmental and natural resources laws. It has since collected $7.2 million in fines and $2.4 million in settlement payments. Past grants have gone to a variety of local governments and private groups, including the city of Lincoln, the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center and the Nebraska Cattlemen.
Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday's testimony showed that something needs to be done to change the way these funds are handled. He said it's important for the people to know exactly how state funds are used.
"The bottom-line issue is that this is a complicated process," Ashford said. "The money doesn't come in in an orderly way, and when we are talking about millions of dollars ... it goes to the issue of public confidence."