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Abortion dispute leads to budget stalemate in Nebraska

Jim Scheer
The Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — When Nebraska lawmakers debate their state budget each year, it’s usually a ho-hum affair that prompts conservatives to complain about spending and progressives to lament a lack of funding for education and public services.

But this year, the budget talks have been overshadowed by a contentious abortion dispute. The standoff threatens to disrupt other state services and could force the Legislature into a rare special session later this year, lawmakers said.

Nebraska’s state finances fell into limbo after lawmakers failed twice to advance a wide-ranging budget bill because of a dispute over health clinics that refer women to abortion providers. Lawmakers fell two votes short of the 33 that were needed to end debate on the budget and allow and up-or-down vote.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said he was concerned that lawmakers are “playing chicken” with the state budget and warned that the emotionally charged debate could set a bad precedent.

“It’s just a contentious issue,” said Scheer, a Norfolk Republican. “Hopefully it works itself out and we can move on.”

At issue is a provision requested by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts that would deny federal family-planning money to health clinics if they perform abortions, counsel about abortions or refer patients to abortion providers. To qualify, clinics would have to demonstrate legal, financial and physical separation from an abortion provider. Ricketts said the budget should reflect Nebraska’s status as a “pro-life state.”

Nebraska is one of seven conservative states that have focused this year on funding from Title X, the nation’s only federal family-planning program that offers reproductive health services to low-income people. Planned Parenthood is a major recipient.

In Nebraska, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland operates two of the state’s 42 health centers that receive Title X money, but sees nearly one-third of the state’s 28,000 patients for breast exams, pap smears and birth control.

“Patients with low incomes should not be held hostages to the whims of Gov. Ricketts,” said Meg Mikolajczyk, a spokeswoman for the group.

In April 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama administration rule that prevented states from excluding a qualified provider “for reasons other than its ability to provide Title X services.”

A measure similar to Nebraska’s has won approval from Tennessee lawmakers, but Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has not yet approved it. Last year, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed an executive order directing state agencies not to allocate Title X funding to health care providers affiliated in any way with abortion clinics.

Federal law already forbids abortion providers from getting so-called Title X money, but opponents said the bill could jeopardize funding for health centers that provide referrals. The language does not allow doctors to refer patients to a provider in medical emergencies, said Sen. Anna Wishart, a Lincoln Democrat who has taken part in recent closed-door negotiations.

“We need to find language that will do the least harm,” Wishart said.

Without agreement on a package, some senators said they’ll likely have to return to the Capitol for a special session shortly after their regular session ends on April 18. Nebraska lawmakers are only required to balance their budget once every two years, but in practice they vote on a package annually to adjust for sudden drops in state revenue and new, unexpected expenses.

This year, for instance, Ricketts requested an additional $24.7 million to pay for an influx of children into the state’s child welfare system. Lawmakers also began this year’s session with a projected $173 million revenue shortfall, and the stalled budget includes cuts to ensure the state’s finances remain in balance.

“It is absolutely critical that the Legislature move the budget forward and get it to my desk with the pro-life budget language,” Ricketts said Monday in a column sent to Nebraska newspapers.

Sen. Dan Watermeier, of Syracuse, a Republican who has taken part in recent closed-door budget negotiations, said he was hopeful lawmakers could still reach an agreement before the session ends.

“No one has walked out of the room,” said Watermeier, who supports the governor’s proposal. “There’s definitely a lot of risk if we don’t pass a budget. But I think cooler heads will prevail.”

Watermeier said he doesn’t object to groups such as Planned Parenthood of the Heartland getting the federal money, as long as they don’t comingle it with private dollars that pay for abortion services.

Some conservative lawmakers have pointed to a 2016 state audit that accused Planned Parenthood of the Heartland of misusing at least $3,500 in public money for related to abortion.

“We, along with many Nebraskans across the state, are disheartened to see certain members of the Legislature hold the entire state budget hostage because of the Title X provision,” said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

Planned Parenthood said the money in question was privately raised but that the expenses were miscoded in its records.

“Planned Parenthood of the Heartland takes compliance very seriously,” Mikolajczyk said. “We have implemented numerous safeguards to protect against any miscoding that could be perceived as jeopardizing funds.”

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Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard contributed from Columbia, South Carolina.

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