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Legislature to hold hearing on Ricketts' plan to end funding for clinics that offer abortion-related services

Legislature to hold hearing on Ricketts' plan to end funding for clinics that offer abortion-related services

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts

LINCOLN — Abortion politics will once again be discussed alongside the state budget this week at the Nebraska Legislature.

In his state budget proposal, Gov. Pete Ricketts has recommended cutting off federal Title X funding to entities that perform, counsel or refer for abortion.

The budget-crafting Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing on the governor’s proposed changes Monday.

Title X funds are used to pay for contraceptives, cervical cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and related services for low-income women and men.

Program supporters say the funds prevent unintended pregnancy.

The money cannot directly be used for abortions, but many abortion opponents believe that the funds free up resources that can be used for abortion.

A proposal before the Legislature last year to effectively cut off funding from Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and three other health clinics — in Tecumseh, Grand Island and North Platte — was rejected by lawmakers.

Unlike last year, the Appropriations Committee this year will hold a special hearing on the governor’s proposal.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the committee chairman, said the committee is trying to do its due diligence so members are better informed and prepared to answer questions about the bill during what often can be an emotional debate.

Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, vice chair of the committee, said she would have preferred that the discussion about the money take place in front of the Health and Human Services Committee, where senators perhaps have a better handle on the subject matter.

Since the proposal is part of the budget, it went to the Appropriations Committee.

Supporters of Ricketts’ proposal say it ensures there will be substantial separation from abortion in Title X activities.

Opponents of the governor’s proposal say the bill targets Planned Parenthood specifically. Planned Parenthood’s clinics serve about 8,000 Nebraskans with their share of Title X funds, said Becca Lee, communications manager for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. Among the clinics that receive Title X funding, there is some confusion and concern about what the changes could mean for those seeking access to family planning.

Lee said the organization fears that language in the bill puts all Title X recipients in the state at risk of losing federal funding.

Lee specifically pointed to a sentence in the bill that says no funds will be paid out to an organization that “performs, assists with the performance of, provides directive counseling in favor of or refers for abortion.”

All organizations that receive funding must give pregnant women the opportunity to receive counseling and information on prenatal care and delivery, infant care, foster care, adoption and pregnancy termination, according to a Congressional Research Service report from last year.

The information given to the woman must be factual and neutral, and a referral is provided if one is requested, the report said.

Lee said not providing that information could put all Title X recipients in the state at risk.

Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said that might be what the Title X requirements say, but there are other federal laws that prevent the clinics from having to refer patients.

Venzor said all providers would still remain eligible under the bill, but if they engage with abortion providers they would have to meet certain requirements, such as proving they are objectively independent.

Objectively independent in the bill is defined as “legal, physical and financial separation.”

“The language recommended in the budget does not prohibit any provider from applying and receiving Title X funding as long as they do not provide abortions services or refer or provide directive counseling for abortions,” said Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman.

“If an organization has been providing abortions or related services, they can take steps to ensure that the entity providing Title X services is totally separate.”

Ricketts announced his intention to make the changes to Title X in January.

“Nebraska is a pro-life state, and the state’s budget should reflect those values,” Ricketts said at the time.

The governor credited action by Congress for allowing Nebraska to make the changes.

Last year President Donald Trump signed legislation that would allow states to deny federal family planning money to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood, undoing a rule put in place by former President Barack Obama.

The rule had required states to distribute federal dollars for family planning services even if the providers also performed abortions.

Last year the Iowa Legislature switched to a state-funded system that excludes abortion providers including Planned Parenthood. Early data from the first three months of the program show a nearly 50 percent drop in the number of people enrolled in its family planning program since the switch.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

emily.nitcher@owh.com, 402-473-9581

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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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