Gay rights vs. religion debate in Legislature; No Medicaid expansion in ’15

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April 9th, 2015

Gay rights vs. religion debate erupts in Legislature; Medicaid expansion dead for this year (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

Gay rights vs. religion debate erupts in Legislature; Medicaid expansion dead for this year (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

The Nebraska Legislature got tangled up Wednesday over gay rights and religion; and a renewed push for Medicaid expansion was killed for the year.


Lincoln, NE – The gay rights debate erupted as lawmakers were considering a bill to exempt certain charitable organizations from property taxes.

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The measure would apply to fraternal organizations that have both business and charitable operations, like Woodmen of the World and the Knights of Columbus. As legislators were debating the merits of giving them a property tax exemption, Sen. Ernie Chambers proposed an amendment saying such tax breaks could go only to organizations that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Sen. Adam Morfeld, sponsor of a separate bill to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, supported the amendment. Morfeld said opponents of his bill keep saying discrimination is not a widespread problem.

“Well I’ll submit to you that this type of discriminaton against LGBT Nebraskans – our brothers, our sisters, mothers and fathers – is alive and well. In fact, the Omaha World-Herald, the Journal Star and many other news outlets have reported just yesterday that a teacher is being fired, or in the process of potentially being fired, for being gay,” Morfeld said.

Morfeld was referring to reports that a teacher at Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha was told his contract would not be renewed after he told them he was engaged to a man. The Omaha archdiocese has declined to comment on contract renewals, but says teachers are expected to uphold Catholic teachings and obey a code of conduct, the World-Herald reported.

Sen. Bill Kintner said Morfeld’s comments showed gay rights supporters are targeting Christians. “If you’re a Christian, they’re coming after you. You just heard him say that. So I think it’s very important to remember that whenever they talk about protecting a class, it’s not just a shield, it’s a sword. And they are going to come after you if you’re a Christian. It something that this body, we need to guard the rights of everyone. That includes Christians,” Kintner said.

Morfeld denied Kintner’s claim. “First, I’m a Christian. I go to church. And in fact, LB586 (his bill) maintains the religious exemption that would be able to exempt schools like Skutt from the law. So this isn’t an attack on Christianity, it’s not an attack on religion, and in fact, I’m maintaining the same religious exemption that has been in place for over 60 years,” he said.

Sen. Lydia Brasch said despite changing social mores, she thinks sexual orientation has little relevance to employment. “We come into this world, boy or girl, and it seems that through life, things are changing. And then we are questioning Christianity and love. And we say there’s a separation of church and state and I’m going to stay by it? Well, I think there’s a separation of sexuality and employment. When I hire someone it’s on merit, ability to do their work, their past work record, their education, the interview. But I, for one, do not want to know a person’s sexuality,” Brasch said.

Senators rejected Chambers’ proposed amendment on a vote of 14-24. They then moved on before reaching a first-round vote on the bill.

On Medicaid expansion, senators renewed a battle that has been fought each of the last two years. On the one hand were supporters of expanding Medicaid to cover what an updated estimate says would be 77,000 more Nebraskans. Once again, Sen. Kathy Campbell led the charge for expansion. “Rightly, in this debate we will hear about the people in the coverage gap that cannot get insurance. About how they are locked out of the system. And about how this bill can save literally hundreds of lives in the years ahead,” Campbell said.

The coverage gap refers to the situation of people under the federal poverty line who are not eligible for subsidies on the health insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. That Act anticipated these low income people would be covered by expanded Medicaid. But the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for the states. In addition to giving more people health coverage, Campbell argued Medicaid expansion would more than pay for itself by bringing more than $400 million a year in federal payments into the state.

The state’s share of the cost is supposed to be limited to 10 percent. But opponents question whether the federal government will uphold its end of the bargain. And Sen. Kintner said Medicaid’s track record suggests costs will be significantly higher than estimates. Kintner cited Medicaid’s share of Nebraska’s state budget since he graduated from high school in 1979. “Since I graduated out of high school its gone from a little under three percent to nineteen percent of the budget. This is a government program. It grows like a wild weed. That’s what government programs do,” he said.

The bill contains a provision that if the federal share drops below 90 percent, coverage for newly eligible individuals would terminate.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a test vote occurred on the bill. There was an amendment to change the voting on a Medicaid reform task force, a change favored by supporters of Medicaid expansion. It failed, with 24 senators voting against it and only 22 in favor. Campbell said later that supporters realized at that point they did not have enough votes to prevail. Senators then voted 28-16 to delay any further consideration of the bill for the rest of this session, effectively killing the bill for this year.

And on another subject, the Natural Resources Committee voted 7-0 to endorse Gov. Pete Ricketts’ nomination of John Arley Rundel to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The endorsement came despite opposition from the Sierra Club. Ken Winston of the Sierra Club said the commission may have violated the public meetings act in a March 24 hearing on the proposed disposal of fracking water in Sioux County. Winston said the commission was excluding from the public record comments of people who lived more than a half mile from the disposal site. Sen. Ken Schilz, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said Rundel, a geologist, is highly qualified, and shouldn’t be opposed based on the controversy about the proceedings.

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