Nebraska budget bill stalls again as stalemate over abortion continues

Nebraska budget bill stalls again as stalemate over abortion continues
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — It was a different day, but the result was the same.

A vote to cease debate on the main budget bill failed Friday, continuing the stalemate over Title X funding in the Nebraska Legislature.

Friday’s vote prompted a strong rebuke from Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk, who only put the budget bill back on the agenda after several senators told him that they would vote to cease debate.

“This body has lost the concept of giving your word as your bond,” Scheer said.

Scheer said that once again, senators wasted two hours on the budget bill without any movement on the issue.

Thirty-one senators voted to cease debate on Legislative Bill 944, the main budget bill. Seven senators voted no, and 10 senators were present and not voting. It takes 33 votes to cut off debate.

A vote to cease debate Wednesday failed by three votes.

The vote guarantees that lawmakers won’t pass the budget bill by the 50th day of the 60-day session, as required by legislative rules. Lawmakers have missed the deadline in the past.

If the session ends without lawmakers passing the budget bill, funding could be delayed for state agencies, including child welfare services.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a statement that by filibustering the budget, some senators were putting state services for children at risk.

“Because of an influx of children into our child welfare system, funding will run out in May,” Ricketts said. “It is absolutely critical that the Legislature move the budget forward, which contains new child welfare funding, and get it to my desk. With only days left in the session, the clock is ticking.”

Lawmakers could be looking at a special session if the budget isn’t approved and sent to the governor, said Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

The bill makes changes to the budget that was passed last year. Since the passage of that budget, revenues have fallen short of what was anticipated, and revisions were needed to address the shortfall.

So far, senators have not been able to agree or compromise on a proposal from Ricketts that would end federal Title X funding for entities that perform, counsel or refer for abortions. That proposal is tucked into the main budget bill.

Title X funds can’t be used for abortion. Instead, the funds pay for contraceptives, cervical cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and related services for low-income women and men.

Opponents of Ricketts’ plan argue that the Title X language proposed by the governor could exclude all, or at least most, of the current Title X agencies from qualifying for funding.

Those include Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Nebraska’s federally qualified health centers, such as One World and Charles Drew. The centers serve large numbers of uninsured people and people on Medicaid.

Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, who has worked on Title X grants, said the federal government may not grant Title X funds to the state government if the state cannot provide services across Nebraska. That could open the door for a nonprofit organization to submit a competing grant application and take over administration of the funds.

Proponents of Ricketts’ plan say it will ensure that tax dollars will not be used for abortion-related services by forcing clinics that receive Title X funds to be “objectively independent” from abortion providers. “Objectively independent” in the bill is defined as having “legal, physical and financial separation.”

Supporters point to a state audit that found that some Title X funds were improperly used for abortion-related services; they say that could put all funding in the state at risk. Those funds were later reimbursed.

Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard said that Title X funding needs to remain available and that he doesn’t want the funding to be jeopardized by issues that have been identified in the past.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln offered an amendment to the bill Friday to remove the Title X language from the budget, but senators didn’t vote on the amendment.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha was one of the senators who intended to vote to end the budget debate Friday, and he told Scheer as much beforehand.

McCollister said that when he did so, he was under the impression that the Legislature had to advance the budget by the 50th day of the session under the rules.

But Friday, he learned that the day 50 deadline had been missed before. Plus, he said he wanted to give more time to colleagues who are working on a compromise intended to address concerns about Title X, so he abstained on Friday’s cloture vote.

Senators on both sides of the issue are slated to meet Monday for as long as it takes to hash out a compromise.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a member of the Appropriations Committee, is among those trying to come up with a compromise. She and Howard said it was unfortunate that the budget bill had come back for debate while previous negotiations were ongoing.

“Compromise takes time,” Wishart said.

Stinner said of the stalemate, “I just don’t know if there’s a compromise out there. The longer this goes, the more people get emboldened.”

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