Medicaid Expansion, Food Stamps For Felons Discussed In Legislature


March 10th, 2016

Sens. Heath Mello and Kathy Campbell discuss Medicaid expansion (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sens. Heath Mello and Kathy Campbell discuss Medicaid expansion (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A new plan to pay for Medicaid expansion; food stamps for felons, and a senator’s encounter with a state trooper were subjects for discussion Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature.

Supporters of expanding Medicaid say it’s a way to provide health insurance to 97,000 more Nebraskans, with the federal government paying 90 percent of the tab. Critics question whether the feds will live up to that funding commitment, and argue even the state’s 10 percent cost will take away from other needs like roads and schools.

Even supporters of expansion estimate it will cost the state $112 million over the next five years. Wednesday, they proposed putting a sunset date on the expansion after three years. That means it would be scheduled in law to expire at that point.

Meanwhile, an independent consultant would study how much it was actually costing the state, with the idea that the Legislature and governor would have to agree to a long-term plan, or the program would end.

The state’s cost for the next three years would come from $63 million from the Health Care Cash Fund. That’s a fund that contains money from a settlement reached with tobacco companies. It currently contains about $460 million which is being spent on health programs.

The fund was projected to run out of money around 2035. Sen. Health Mello says dipping into it further while a consultant helps figure out future costs and savings addresses critics who question whether Medicaid expansion is fiscally sustainable. “This addresses that issue. It puts the governor and the Legislature in the driver’s seat to be able to measure, analyze, evaluate on an annual basis for three years the complete fiscal impact of providing health insurance to the currently 97,000 uninsured in Nebraska who would qualify and likely try to utilize this program,” Mello said.

Taylor Gage, spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts who opposes Medicaid expansion, said the latest proposal doesn’t change the governor’s postion. The Legislature is expected to debate the proposal in the coming weeks.

In debate Wednesday, senators considered a proposal to allow people convicted of more than two drug felonies to receive SNAP benefits, or food stamps. At a public hearing earlier this year, ex-felons said that by serving prison sentences, they’d paid their debt to society, and needed food stamps to get back on their feet.

Papillion Sen. Bill Kinter objected. “These people are serious, repeat offenders. They’ve been given one chance. Two chances. And they continue to sell drugs. Continue to use drugs. Continue to destroy our communities. Now I’m told we need to subsidize that behavior. I would enourage my fellow senators who think drugs are a problem to reject this amendment,” Kinter said.

Not all senators agreed with Kintner. Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said 18 other states have already changed policies prohibiting food stamps for people convicted of drug felonies. Williams said those policies date from an era of being tough on drugs, and a new approach is needed. “It’s the only felonies that we exempt from the SNAP program: drug felonies. The other felonies – even murder – are not exempted from receiving help through the SNAP program,” Williams said.

“I believe we have a commitment to people to make them better. To do things that help them survive, and help them stay rehabilitated. And if they have $100, and nothing else, when we kick them out of prison, we should not be surprised at the high level of recidivism that we have in our country,” he added.

In the end, senators voted 26-7 against Kintner’s challenge to the proposal. They then gave it first round approval on a vote of 35-5. The bill would increase spending by an estimated $55,000 a year in federal funds. Before the vote, Kintner hinted to his colleagues they may hear about this in their campaigns. “The hurry here to give money away – federal money, it’s free, its federal – we have a $19 trillion deficit – turn around and finance convicted drug dealers is nothing short of shameful. I think we’re going to have so fun with this this year. It is an election year,” he said.

The U.S. national debt, accumulated over the years, is just over $19 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office projects this year’s deficit, which will add to the debt, at $544 billion.

And with little debate and no dissent, senators gave 29-0 first-round approval to a proposal reforming regulation by the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of the disposal of waste water from fracking operations. The proposal by Sen. Ken Schilz requires companies to report an analysis of the fluid they are reinjecting into the ground at least once a year, and requires local governments to be notified of injection well applications.

Also in floor debate Wednesday, Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins drew a laugh from his colleagues while they were debating a bill reforming the state patrol pension system. “I got an opportunity Sunday to meet one of our fine young highway patrolmen,” Bloomfield said.

But Bloomfield went on to explain he wasn’t being stopped for speeding. “As I was changing the tire, a highway patrolmen pulled up behind the car, turned on his blue lights; also turned on a spotlight which gave me a little more light to see. And then he produced a four-way tire wrench which he operated and helped me change the tire. So every time you see the blue lights, it’s not a bad thing,” Bloomfield said, adding “I’d like to thank the highway patrol and this individual in particular whose name I did not get, nor did he get mine unless he got it off the license plate.”

State Patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins identified the trooper who helped Bloomfield as Justin Ferguson, 26, who joined the patrol in October 2014 and graduated from the training academy last May.


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