LINCOLN, Nebraska — Lawmakers would step into an ongoing dispute over the new Central Nebraska Veterans Home, if one state senator has his way.
Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island said he plans to introduce a bill in January that would require legislative approval before the state could relocate major buildings or services. The bill would apply to facilities that cost more than $15 million.
Gloor said including the Legislature would make the process more transparent and serve as a check against unilateral decisions to move a major state building. He said he also is concerned that the current open bidding process pits Nebraska cities against one another in a fight for resources.
"I'm just uncomfortable with this win-lose scenario," Gloor said. "The argument is that it saves a couple million dollars. But you're leaving a hole in another community."
Gov. Dave Heineman announced in July that the 126-year-old veterans home would move to Kearney from its longtime home in Grand Island. Heineman made the decision after receiving a recommendation from a committee of three state department heads appointed by the governor.
Grand Island, Kearney, Hastings and North Platte competed for the project to replace the outdated, 225-bed Grand Island facility. The current home has about 375 employees, and the new project is expected to generate millions in economic activity.
Kearney residents welcomed the decision, but Grand Island and Hall County officials have responded with outrage. Kearney officials have agreed to commit millions in local aid to the project, which will include walking trails, a wood and ceramic shop, a library, garden areas and a veterans' memorial.
Gloor said his proposal could apply to state-run facilities such as Kearney's Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center, which lawmakers considered closing earlier this year, or state call centers for the Department of Health and Human Services. He said the bill wouldn't apply to local courthouses, state colleges or the University of Nebraska.
A spokeswoman for Heineman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposal.
Nebraska officials have said they are moving forward with plans to build the new veterans' home in Kearney, although design and construction work won't begin until the federal government approves funding. Last month, they held a meeting with 26 architectural and design firms that expressed interest in the $121 million facility.
The state sent its proposal to Washington in August, asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to pay 65 percent of the cost.
In September, a Grand Island-based veterans' service officer sent a letter to the department, urging it to withhold funding on the Kearney project until further study was completed. Donald Shuda said renovations could help the home stay in Grand Island, an argument rejected by state officials. Heineman has said the mixed signals could jeopardize federal funding for the project.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it will respect Heineman's right to choose the facility's location, as long as the state can demonstrate that a new facility will serve the current veteran population's needs while meeting VA standards.
Lawmakers already have to approve state funding for major building projects, and they did so for the veterans home earlier this year, before the new location was announced.
Gloor said the move was akin to taking the nonprofit Boys Town in Omaha — with a history dating to 1917 — and moving it to Lincoln.
The veterans' home in Grand Island "is part of the culture of the community," Gloor said. "If the decision was made to move Boys Town, people in Omaha would say, 'How can Boys Town not be located in Omaha?'"