Tackling the challenge of poverty in Nebraska is no simple matter. It takes an array of tools to try to address it.
The Nebraska Legislature is considering one such tool now: enterprise zones. It is a worthy idea, used in at least 42 states.
Under a proposal by State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, up to five such zones would be established across the state, with no more than one in a city the size of Omaha.
The state would look to specific numerical data — significant population loss, as well as rates of poverty and unemployment well above the state average — in designating part of a city or town as an enterprise zone.
Using those requirements, enterprise zones would be a possibility for areas including north Omaha, tribal areas in northeast Nebraska and individual rural communities.
The state would give such zones a leg up in qualifying for state programs involving job training, affordable housing funds and state microenterprise tax credits. Specifics would be determined through rules and regulations by the state Department of Economic Development.
In a letter to the Legislature’s Business and Labor Committee, the Omaha City Council voiced unanimous support for the proposal, which is currently before that committee.
“Nebraska is consistently challenged to find creative ways that broaden the incentives to lure small businesses to our communities,” the City Council said, and the state should explore an array of options, such as enterprise zones.
Pete Festersen, president of the City Council, told The World-Herald: “The council was unanimous in wanting to address areas of high poverty in the community. We all see that as a very high priority to addressing the need for jobs and crime prevention and education in our community and especially in north Omaha.”
Nebraska had an enterprise zone law on the books in the 1990s, but it expired. The law’s expiration in part reflected the lack of a focus on economic development for north Omaha.
These days, things have changed. There are a variety of groups and leaders in Omaha engaged in pursuing ideas for addressing the sobering challenges in the city’s high-poverty neighborhoods. Mello’s legislation, in fact, has its origins in discussions by a committee with the Empowerment Network, one of the groups working to strengthen north Omaha.
“This is only one tool,” Festersen says, “but it’s going to take a variety of tools to make a difference.”
He’s right. Lawmakers would do well to hone the legislation as appropriate, then approve it. It makes sense to have this additional option in the state’s toolkit.