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Tuesday December 18th, 2018 8:29PM

Nebraska on pace to pass budget targeting abortion providers

By The Associated Press
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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska inched closer Wednesday to passing a budget that could deny federal money to Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, at least temporarily, despite furious opposition from a handful of lawmakers.

Lawmakers advanced a budget measure that would prevent health clinics from getting family-planning dollars if they perform, counsel in favor of or refer patients to abortion services.

The bill also would require health clinics to demonstrate physical, financial and legal separation from abortion providers. Although supporters said Planned Parenthood could still qualify, opponents said the group won't have time to legally separate its abortion and non-abortion services before the bill becomes law.

Referrals would still be allowed in emergencies under the newest version of the measure, crafted as a compromise to help push it through a legislative filibuster. One group that opposes abortion hailed the bill as "good news for pro-life Nebraskans."

But the agreement faced sharp criticism from some lawmakers, who accused their colleagues of bowing to the wishes of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the state's longest-serving senator, blasted fellow lawmakers as "spineless" and said the governor had beaten them.

"I have wasted 44 years in this worthless Legislature," said Chambers, a left-leaning independent.

The 44-4 vote on Wednesday night followed a prolonged stalemate and two failed attempts to advance the budget. One final vote is required before it goes to Ricketts, who inserted the measure into his proposed budget.

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 Title X patients for services such as pap smears and birth control.

In April 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama administration rule that prevented states from excluding a qualified provider "for reasons other than its ability to provide Title X services."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 Title X money, but opponents said the bill could jeopardize funding for health centers that provide referrals.

Supporters pointed to a 2016 state audit that accused Planned Parenthood of the Heartland of misusing at least $3,500 in public money for services related to abortion. Such misuse could jeopardize funding for the entire program, said Nate Grasz, a policy director for the Nebraska Family Alliance.

Planned Parenthood has said the money was privately raised, but miscoded by staff members.

The budget measure "is a reasonable adjustment to Nebraska law that protects valuable services of Title X by completely separating them from the abortion industry," Grasz said. "Greater separation provides more accountability and transparency."

In a statement, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland accused the governor of using the budget as a "political weapon" against the organization.

"Gov. Ricketts has aligned himself with the Trump-Pence administration, and it is clear he will do anything in his power to take away basic human rights from women," said Meg Mikolajczyk, a lobbyist and attorney for the group.

Failing to pass the budget would have created other problems for the state.

Without agreement on a package, some senators said they'd 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.

Because it's in the budget, lawmakers would have to approve the measure again next year. If it survives the third and final vote, some lawmakers said they would try to remove it next year.

"You don't put this type of nonsense into a budget bill, because you can hold it hostage on one issue," said Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Lincoln Democrat.

___

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

___

Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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