State senators went down to the wire on a motion to stop debate and vote on their mainline budget bill Tuesday night, squeaking out 33 votes for cloture, then advancing the bill 38-6.
Many of those who voted against the motion to stop debate, or who were present but not voting, were protesting a provision that remained in the bill regarding Title X funding for medical clinics.
They spent six hours late Tuesday afternoon and into the evening mostly debating whether the state's main budget bill (LB944) should contain the provision proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts that would mandate "objective independence" for health clinics that perform abortions and family planning and health services.
With the provision, any clinic would have to show legal, physical and financial separation from an abortion provider.
An amendment by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz attempted to change the Ricketts provision to mirror federal regulations, allowing organizations to provide neutral, factual information, nondirective counseling, or referral upon request. An otherwise qualified organization, the amendment said, would not be disqualified from Title X funds when it can demonstrate objective independence.
It also provided that Title X funds be distributed statewide, with the Department of Health and Human Services ensuring a sufficient network be maintained to assure Title X services would be accessible without "unreasonable delay."
A number of supporters of the Ricketts provision argued it was merely meant to separate Title X funding for family planning from abortion services. A past audit showed some Title X funding was mixed with abortion funding, they said, and Ricketts' provision was needed to ensure separation of services so as not to jeopardize the state's access to the federal money.
Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, who supported the Bolz amendment, referred to Ricketts' provision as "Vaginagate," saying it would punish people who need those family planning and cancer-screening services.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said the provision was not about abortion, but about something far more profound: the freedom for women to choose what they would do with their own bodies.
It attempted to shut down those organizations that enable a woman to have adequate reproductive health care, to choose when to have children, he said.
"Everyone knew this was going to blow up the budget. And yet they persisted," Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said those who supported Ricketts' provision.
With about an hour and a half to go in the debate, Bolz announced she would withdraw her motion and work on a compromise for the second round of consideration of the bill, and the provision remained in the budget bill.
The debate on adjustments to the 2017-19 $8.8 billion state budget started Tuesday morning with tension, delays and opposition to spending down the state's rainy day fund to $296 million.
Ricketts proposed transferring $108 million from the rainy day fund to cover specific expenses and balance the budget. The Appropriations Committee reduced that amount to $100 million. Bolz said the transfer ensured senators would protect K-12 education, obligations for pension funds and the property tax credit.
But a number of senators had difficulty swallowing the reduction of the rainy day fund. Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said the budget was in dire need of cuts. Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell said the state had to be prepared for unexpected spending the state could encounter, such as on overcrowded prisons.
Schumacher offered the gloomiest scenario.
"There's some truths that are self-evident. And the truth that is self-evident is we are in really bad financial shape and we are making it worse," he said. "We're spending more than we're taking in."
And cutting taxes isn't helping matters, he said.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln criticized those senators who wanted to "cut, cut, cut," but wouldn't look in the mirror at their own willingness to take, for example, farm subsidies. It's hypocritical, he said.
"A budget is more than just a spreadsheet of numbers and columns," he said. "It's policies. It's people's lives. It's who we are as a state, and it's who we are in terms of how we look at taking care of our fellow farmers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters."
In the end, all three budget bills advanced to a second round of debate, but all with opposition.
Appropriations Chairman John Stinner said the budget adjustments were fair and balanced, with priorities aimed at the future of the state.
Senators did not debate across-the-board reductions to higher education and state agencies, but that and other discussions could come up in the next round of consideration.