Budget advances after fight over family planning funds


April 27th, 2017

Senators debate the budget Wednesday night (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval Wednesday to a proposed $8.9 billion budget for the next two years, but only after a bitter fight over a provision that some senators said would threaten women’s health services.

Lincoln, NE – Debate centered on language in the budget bill about how the Department of Health and Human Services should prioritize funding for women’s health services, including contraception. The language says the Department should prioritize funding for federally qualified heath centers, community health centers, hospitals, and tribal and local governments. Sen. Paul Schumacher said that sounded innocuous, but the key was what it didn’t say.

“What that really means is that the appropriation would be de-prioritized – in fact effectively removed — for operations that conduct std screenings, pap smears, contraception  – not talking abortion here because (federal) Title X has never been allowed for abortion funding – but all kinds of women’s health issues,” Schumacher said.

Sen. Bob Krist, who is pro-life, was blunt about who he thought those operations that Schumacher referred to included.

“I think this a deliberate attempt to take money away from Planned Parenthood. And make no mistake about it, those of you who know me well, Planned Parenthood is not my favorite organization, for one part of what they do,” said Krist, who nevertheless supported Schumacher’s objection.

According to Schumacher’s office, Nebraska received $1.9 million in federal Title X funding last fiscal year, of which Planned Parenthood got just under $323,000.

Other senators said the language would also cut off funding to other clinics which, unlike Planned Parenthood, do not provide abortions. Schumacher’s office indicated those included clinics in North Platte, McCook, Grand Island, Kearney, Tecumseh, Crete, Beatrice and Peru.

In conversation with Appropriations Chairman John Stinner, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks objected to language that said that separate state funding to be appropriated was “up to” $653,759.

“We could just say “up to” on every appropriation and just let the governor decide,” Pansing Brooks said.

“Well, that would be an interesting way to do it. That’s not the way we do it,” Stinner said.

“That’s one way to deal with our appropriations is just to say Oh, we’re going to give ‘up to’ this amount. And the fact that we’re doing it on women’s health care, that upsets me, as you can tell,” Pansing Brooks added.

Senators also objected that the proposal had not received a public hearing. But Sen. Mike Hilgers pointed out that the language was included in the original budget proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, and had been available for comment in a public hearing.

“It is not true, in my mind, that there was not public notice of this particular piece of LB327. I don’t think it was a surprise. There were committee hearings on this legislation. There was there was an opportunity for the public to be heard. And there was public notice of this material,” Hilgers said.

Sen. Suzanne Geist also opposed Schumacher’s attempt to remove the language. Geist read from an application for the grant funds.

“It states here that this is a supplemental form of funding for these clinics – as supplemental funding for family services for these clinics — not the sole funding. And because of that, it shows we’re not with this language closing clinics down,” Geist said.

Senators defeated Schumacher’s amendment on a vote of 19-17. Sen. Ernie Chambers, who supported the amendment, then moved to reconsider that vote. Shortly after 9  p.m. senators voted for cloture, shutting off debate, and then gave the budget 36-1 first round approval. Several longtime legislative observers said they could not remember a time when cloture was invoked on the main budget bill.

Senators also defeated an amendment by Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson. Friesen said he wanted to restore $15 million of the $30 million that the Appropriations Committee wanted to remove from roads funding, in order to help balance the budget.

His amendment was defeated, 27-20. Meanwhile, the state’s economic forecasting advisory board reduced its estimate of state revenues for the current and next two fiscal years by $55 million. Also on Wednesday, lawmakers deadlocked over a complex bill on services to people with disabilities.

The proposal would eliminate a state program that provides medical and cash assistance to people with temporary disabilities, saving an estimated $7 million over the next two years. It would also change a program that provides services to developmentally disabled people after high school, to meet federal requirements. But supporters say those people would still be served, if the federal government approves the changes to the program.

Lawmakers moved on to another subject before reaching a vote on the bill, leaving its fate uncertain.

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