The 20th Anniversary of the Environmental Trust Fund

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By Ben Nelson

Before and after pictures of the Republican River in Franklin County, Neb. (Twin Valley Weed Management)Born and raised in McCook, a small town in rural Nebraska, I have always tried to be a good steward to our land, air and water. I think most Nebraskans who have a rural background have a deep commitment to the environment. It may come from our dependence on the land for everything we have in a richly agriculture state that has some of the most beautiful, pristine scenery in America.

I believe our respect for nature is one of the reasons Nebraskans have so much common sense. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Those are the words of Albert Einstein, and they certainly apply to Nebraskans and our care of the environment.

To protect and preserve Nebraska’s environment, I worked diligently with the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, natural resources districts and others to establish the Environmental Trust Fund, which I signed into law as governor to fund environmental projects.

Looking back to that time I can truthfully say it was one of my greatest legislative accomplishments during eight years as governor and 12 in the United States Senate.

That’s saying a lot because I have worked hard on a lot of important legislation over all those years that will impact Nebraskans and all Americans far into the future. This includes health care reform, a new headquarters for STRATCOM, a National Research Institute that connects the University of Nebraska to STRATCOM, reducing budgets, cutting taxes, new infrastructure throughout Nebraska and protecting the Platte River through a pact with Wyoming and Colorado, which I started as governor and moved through Congress as senator.

The campaign slogan during my first run for governor emphasized “The Three E’s” … Energy, Education and the Environment, and it wasn’t long after my election I put together a week-long environmental tour of the entire state to see what improvements were needed.

We visited many places during that tour, but one stop that stood out was the Rainwater Basin. It was in sad shape as most of the wetlands were drained at that time. The Rainwater Basin, in conjunction with the Platte River, provides one of the world’s greatest waterfowl migration spectacles with seven to nine million ducks and two to three million geese stopping in the Rainwater Basin every year. Much has been done in that area since that tour in 1991, and the recovery is going well.

It was during that tour that the concept of an environmental trust fund to finance needed improvements began to take shape.

It was designed for the purpose of conserving, enhancing and restoring the natural, physical and biological environment, including the air, land, groundwater, surface water, flora and fauna, prairies and forests, wildlife and habitat and natural areas of aesthetic or scenic value.

These are all worthy goals, but we had to figure out a way to fund it. During my campaign for governor, many Nebraskans told me they wanted to have a state lottery. They saw neighboring states drawing thousands of Nebraskans to purchase lottery tickets and asked why Nebraska couldn’t have a lottery of its own and reap the benefits.

While many Nebraskans had told me on the campaign trail that they wanted a lottery, the best way to create one was to put it to a vote to see if a majority agreed, and they did. On Election Day in November 1992 an astounding 63 percent of Nebraskans voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to authorize creation of a lottery. The people had spoken and Nebraska was set to become the 37th state in the nation to have a lottery.

Proceeds from the lottery would go to fund worthwhile, charitable causes, including education, help for compulsive gamblers and the environment. The Environmental Trust Fund would receive 49.5 percent and the Education Innovation Fund would receive a similar amount. The Compulsive Gamblers Fund was also an important part of the proceeds with a 1 percent allocation. Nebraska voters passed Amendment Four in November 2004 to change the percentages and allot 10 percent to the Nebraska State Fair. At the present time, the Compulsive Gamblers Fund receives 1 percent plus the first $500,000 in funds proceeds each year.

It didn’t take long after the law was passed for stores statewide to begin selling lottery tickets. I can still remember standing outside a convenience store in Omaha, along with a battery of television cameras, waiting for the first ticket to be purchased.

Whether people like the lottery or not, few can argue with its benefits. It has funded more than 1,300 environmental projects or activities in all 93 counties. The Environmental Trust Board has approved some $178 million over the past 20 years for habitat, ground- and surface water, recycling, air quality, soil management, wildlife and even disposal of household chemicals.

Projects have been undertaken by schools, environmental nonprofits, cities, counties, natural resource districts, 4-H Clubs and more, all protecting and preserving the environment in one form or another.

I’ve been particularly impressed by the Trust Fund’s contribution to Lincoln’s new Union Plaza in the Antelope Valley project, which I helped along as Senator by directing federal funds to the overall project. Thanks to the Environmental Trust Fund, the plaza has green elements, trails, trees, water features and scenic views.

To this day Nebraskans still tell me that when they buy a lottery ticket, it’s a win-win situation no matter what happens. If they don’t become an instant millionaire, they don’t mind paying for a ticket because it’s going for a good cause—preserving natural Nebraska for future generations.

Immigration in Nebraska