Budget, Voter ID, Abortion/Trans Health Bills Disputed

May 18, 2023, midnight ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature Thursday gave final approval to budget bills, continued wrangling over voter ID, and prepared for Friday’s climactic vote on abortion and transgender health care.

As lawmakers conclude action on the state budget, one of the biggest expenses under discussion was the Perkins County Canal. That’s the proposed canal to bring water from the South Platte River in Colorado to Nebraska. The project is estimated to cost more than $600 million. But Sen. Anna Wishart, vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the budget does not allow all that money to be spent at once.

“We have set that money aside, colleagues, and we have not appropriated the entire amount of money for this canal…Instead, we have moved enough money to be able to build a canal should the future Legislature decide this is absolutely a must,” Wishart said.

The two-year budget approved allows the Department of Natural Resources to spend just over $60 million on the project each of the next two years, from a total of about $615 million that’s been set aside.

The arrangement is similar to how, in previous years, senators set aside money to build a new prison, without giving permission to spend all the funds. That permission is included in this year’s budget, giving the go-ahead for a new prison projected to cost around $350 million.

Senators also continued to disagree over legislation to implement a photo ID requirement to vote. Nebraskans approved the measure last November, but left it to legislators to work out the details of how to interpret the new law.

Sen. Julie Slama, who led the campaign to get that ballot issue passed, objected to the version of the bill approved by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Among her objections is that the committee’s version, Amendment 1748, would allow people to mail in ballots using their either driver’s license numbers, or a photocopy of an ID, or certification that they can’t provide an ID for a variety of reasons.

“I'm looking at the mail-in voting requirements of (Amendment) 1748, and I see it is very fraud-friendly and compromising the security of our elections,” Slama said.

Slama’s version would require voters to have their mail-in votes notarized, or have a witness attest to their identity.

Sen. Tom Brewer, chair of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, defended the committee’s version.

“It's cleaner. I think it's going to prevent legal challenges. I mean, there may be those anyway, anyone can challenge. But I think what we've done is met what the people directed us to do as close as we can,” Brewer said.

With time running out in this year’s legislative session, both Brewer and Slama say there may have to be a special session later this year if a compromise is not achieved.

Looming over the budget and voter ID discussions is the final debate over LB574, a bill restricting both abortion and transgender health procedures. Senators spent much of Thursday sparring in advance of the deliberations, which are scheduled for Friday afternoon.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh noted that the legislation has an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately. She said that means doctors could face criminal charges for providing health care services.

“Please start calling your doctor's offices right now. And doctors, get everyone in the office standing by to make appointments. Please keep your offices open late. We are in a crisis. We are in a crisis Nebraska. Call your doctors,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Carolyn Bosn said the consequences for doctors who violate abortion restrictions include a possible loss of their license, but not criminal penalties. And she criticized Cavanaugh for saying otherwise.

“For someone to stand here and encourage ‘panic porn’ with these medical providers, nursing staff, and hospitals, with no obligation for their accountability on this disinformation, is pathetic,” Bosn said.

Sen. Ray Aguilar, who has voted for restricting puberty blockers, hormone treatments and surgery for transgender youth, said he resents being called anti-LGBTQ.

“My youngest daughter is gay. She lives with another lady who identifies as trans. She's saving her money right now for surgery. And I have no problem with that. They're both over 35 years old. What I have a hard time wrapping my head around is knowing that science says your brain’s not fully mature and developed until 24 years of age. I have a problem with younger people wanting to make that decision, and not honestly knowing what they really want,” Aguilar said.

But Sen. Megan Hunt, a leading opponent of the bill who is registered nonpartisan, rejected the request by Aguilar, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, to stop labeling supporters of LB574 as bigoted.

“You voted for that bill every round of debate. That is hateful, that affects all LGBTQ people, even the ones you like. You're part of the problem that is the scourge in this society of hate and discrimination that your party is standing on in the middle of an ocean, like it's the most important thing in the world to them. And your proximity to gayness doesn't make that okay,” Hunt said.

The final debate on LB574 is scheduled for 2 p.m. Central Time on Friday. You can watch on Nebraska Public Media’s World tv channel, or online at nebraskapublicmedia.org