LINCOLN — Casting aside strong opposition from Gov. Dave Heineman, a legislative panel advanced a bill Tuesday to restore government-funded prenatal services for illegal immigrants.
The 7-1 vote by the Health and Human Services Committee sends a “strong message” about the overall support for the bill, said its sponsor, State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln.
Campbell said the vote recognizes that the unborn child of a low-income woman in the country illegally will automatically become a U.S. citizen at birth and that spending on prenatal care can save tax dollars later.
The bill now goes before the full Legislature for debate.
Legislative Bill 1110 would restore a state policy that has been in effect for more than two decades.
Every major anti-abortion and medical group in the state backs the bill, arguing that compassion for unborn infants required restoring prenatal care.
They said spending about $800 per woman on prenatal care would head off more expensive bills later for premature births, low-birthweight children and other complications.
One group estimated that prenatal care could head off $2,300 in health-care costs per person in the first year alone.
“This is one of those issues where this is just the right thing to do,” said Jennifer Carter of the Lincoln-based Nebraska Appleseed Center, which advocates for the poor and immigrants.
Opponents say that while prenatal services are beneficial, taxpayer dollars should not be spent on people who are here illegally.
Heineman and others say they expect private charities to step in to help such expectant mothers.
Sen. Dave Pankonin of Louisville was the sole “no” vote in the health committee.
Pankonin said that if state-paid prenatal services are so valuable and save so much money, why is it that 35 states, including Nebraska’s neighbors, offer such coverage?
He said regional officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told him there was no “hard evidence” that prenatal care saves money later.
Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha disagreed.
“You wouldn’t want your family to not have prenatal care,” she said.
Another supporter, Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, a former hospital administrator, said he has always preached that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Carter, of the Appleseed Center, said a law passed last year that bans government benefits for illegal immigrants has no direct bearing on the prenatal issue, because an unborn child has no immigration status.
Lawmakers, she added, made it clear during that debate that the law would not affect unborn children.
The governor’s spokeswoman said the advancement of the bill was “fully expected.”
“The governor is hopeful the Legislature will not pass a bill that provides taxpayer-funded benefits to person here illegally,” said the spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein.
Because the prenatal proposal contains an emergency clause, it will require 33 votes for approval. If Heineman vetoed LB 1110, it would take 30 votes to override the veto.
Campbell and two legislative observers said supporters were within a vote or two of the 33 needed to send the measure to Heineman’s desk.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Campbell said.
Contact the writer: