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Abortion dispute holds up Nebraska budget bill
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Abortion dispute holds up Nebraska budget bill

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The failed vote Wednesday to stop a legislative filibuster on the mainline budget bill put the state's spending measure in limbo.

It will stay there until senators can work out an agreement on a federal Title X funds distribution provision written into the budget by Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

It rarely happens that a state budget bill doesn't make it beyond the second round of debate. But budgets can be testy matters for state lawmakers, and have on occasion been delayed. 

Earlier in the day, senators made it past the argument on University of Nebraska funding, soundly defeating an amendment that would have cut an additional $17.3 million from its state appropriation.

But after an extended debate on another amendment that would make changes to the Title X funding provision, senators could muster only 30 of the required 33 votes needed to stop the filibuster and proceed to a vote on the mainline budget adjustments for fiscal years 2017-19. 

Three members of the Appropriations Committee — Sens. Kate Bolz, Tony Vargas and Anna Wishart —  could have been those three needed votes to end the filibuster, but were recorded as "present not voting." 

Speaker Jim Scheer said the budget will come back on the debate schedule when he believes the needed votes are there. 

"From my perspective, it's on hold," he said. 

The Legislature must pass the budget in the next 13 days to avoid line-item vetoes by the governor that can't be addressed. If the bill isn't passed, the state would revert to the two-year budget approved in 2017. 

Ricketts issued a statement saying it was "unprecedented and disingenuous for members of the Appropriations Committee to filibuster a bill that they voted to bring to the floor." 

He said they needed to lay aside their differences and work together to pass budget adjustments with the pro-life language. 

Ricketts' Title X provision would ensure providers of family planning and women's preventive health services would continue to receive Title X funds only if they could show that any abortion-related services would be physically and financially separated from all Title X services. 

Wishart of Lincoln offered an amendment that Title X providers must provide neutral, factual information, nondirective counseling or referral for abortion upon request. Those providers could not be disqualified from Title X funds when they could demonstrate "objective independence" between Title X services and abortion services, including a detailed monthly record of spending. 

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who had prepared her own amendment to strike Ricketts' provision entirely, said the policy statement didn't belong in the state's spending document. 

"What social policy is going to be in the budget next?" she said. "We could talk about gambling and helmets and property taxes and environmental issues. Let's just put it all in the budget and then we don't have to have bills or committee hearings." 

Besides the Title X extended debate, senators spent several hours debating an amendment by Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard that would have restored a 4 percent cut to NU's state appropriations — the same level of funding for the 2018-19 budget proposed by Ricketts.

Erdman said his amendment was not done in coordination with the governor's office, but because he believed NU should look at deeper cuts to administrative positions than would be required by the 1 percent cut settled on by the Appropriations Committee.

The committee set NU's state appropriation at $574.7 million. Erdman sought to lower that to $557.3 million. No other public higher-education institutions would have been affected by the amendment.

The amendment failed with only 10 votes, after debate ping-ponged between university backers and largely-conservative senators from rural parts of the state who supported Erdman's proposal.

Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner of Gering defended his committee's decision, saying pushing too many cuts onto NU would have done long-term harm to the institution.

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg defended NU and the Board of Regents against criticism leveled by Erdman and Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings that administrators and other non-faculty members were paid too much.

Leadership from NU President Hank Bounds, the chancellors and others was vital for the university's future success, he said, likening it to a poster he saw in a dentist's office that read "Only brush the teeth you want to keep."

But Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, a vocal critic of NU for what he described as a lack of transparency in how it spends state tax dollars, said the focus on university funding has come at the cost of other institutions such as the state and community colleges, which receive less funding per student.

"We've already made a choice to treat students in this state who enroll in higher education differently," Kuehn said.

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft said while she supports NU, she believed it was more important to balance the state's budget, "especially at a time when we are trying to make ends meet."

"I understand the university would like to maintain a status quo of 'you ask and you get,'" she said, adding she believed it best the Legislature be more frugal at this time.

Sen. Jim Smith said support of NU added to the state's image, saying Nebraska was open for business and poised for future growth.

In his closing, Erdman painted the debate as a rural vs. urban divide, saying Lincoln carried the aroma of other Nebraskans' hard-earned tax dollars.

"This city functions on taxes," he said. "We take away the state employees and the university, you have Sidney."

Erdman said he wants NU to be more accountable to Nebraskans and to "spend money more wisely." 

Senators debated two other budget bills Wednesday morning that contained transfers from the state's cash reserve and cash funds, advancing both (LB945 and LB946) to final reading on a voice vote. 

The cash reserve transfers would bring the state savings account to $296 million. Some believe it should be closer to $600 million to $700 million.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus reiterated his points on the danger of spending down the state's rainy day fund.

"We cannot borrow money in this state, so when we run out of that cash reserve, we're done," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


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