- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A provision to cut funding for abortion providers was stripped out of the state budget Wednesday amid criticism from Nebraska lawmakers that the proposal should be debated as a stand-alone bill.

The budget language proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts would have allowed state officials to reduce or eliminate funding for the state’s two Planned Parenthood clinics that perform abortions.

But it also could have meant less funding for clinics that specialize in reproductive health but don’t provide abortions, according to health care providers. Several senators on the Appropriations Committee, which approved the language, said they didn’t realize how the wording would affect health care clinics.

Senators voted 25-19 to strike the wording from the budget.

Even some senators who oppose abortion voiced frustration at the decision to include it in the budget, which lawmakers are legally required to balance. Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk said he might have supported the measure as a stand-alone bill, but was “quite perturbed this was slid into a budget bill.”

“We can all talk about ‘the Nebraska way,’” he said. “Well, this sure as hell isn’t the Nebraska way.”

At issue is budget language that would require the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to prioritize certain health care providers over others when awarding federal Title X money. Title X money helps cover the cost of preventative care and family planning services, such as birth control, tests for sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer screenings. It can’t cover abortion services, but abortion providers can and do receive the money for other services.

The language would allow the department, a part of Ricketts’ administration, to deny or reduce funding for clinics that only provide reproductive health services.

Ricketts, who opposes abortion, has said facilities can still apply for funding, but declined to say whether it’s an effort to deny state money to Planned Parenthood.

A December Obama administration regulation would have prevented states from withholding Title X funds from organizations that provide abortions or using a tiered approach, as the Nebraska proposal would. Congress overturned that rule in March.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward said he felt he was being “used” to further an agenda that has nothing to do with the state budget. Kolterman said he doesn’t want to deny health services to low-income women.

“This is not the way we do things in Nebraska,” he said.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said he was frustrated with the effort

Sen. Joni Craighead of Omaha, who supports the language, proposed an amendment that she said would preserve funding for stand-alone clinics if reducing their funding would jeopardize services. Craighead noted that 11 percent of Title X patients are men.

“Where are we getting that this is only a woman’s issue?” she said.

Still, opponents said the budget language was an attempt to quietly clamp down on abortion services. The bill that includes the language received a public hearing, but abortion wasn’t mentioned at the time.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee’s chairman, said he wished lawmakers would keep budget and social issues separate.

“I just want to talk about the budget,” he said. “I think we owe it to Nebraskans to talk about the budget.”

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

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