Family planning/abortion hearing draws crowd; internet sales tax proposal tweaked

Feb. 5, 2018, 5:52 a.m. ·

Bo Botelho of Nebraska Dept. of Health and Human Services speaks on Title X funding (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

A proposal to deny federal family planning funds to organizations that also provide abortions packed a hearing room at the Capitol Monday. Senators heard a proposal to strengthen the teaching of Americanism. And, sponsors are working on a new approach to making online retailers collect sales tax on purchases by Nebraskans.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration included the proposed ban on family planning funds going to abortion providers in its budget bill. Supporters say that would prevent organizations like Planned Parenthood from receiving funding; opponents say it would decrease the availability of family planning services. Federal regulations prohibit the funds, known as Title X, from being used for abortion. Bo Botelho of the Department of Health and Human Services spoke on behalf of the bill. “At this point in time we do not foresee a decrease in available services because of the proposed language. The Department believes other facilities would step forward if current grantees choose not to participate,” he said.

Sen. Anna Wishart said similar legislation in Iowa had cut the numbers receiving family planning services in half. Wishart also questioned Botelho about his statement that a 2016 audit found that some of the funds were used for abortions. “I was under the impression that this was a result of clinic staff actually miscoding the expenses – no public dollars were actually used. Is that incorrect?” she asked.

“I don’t know, senator,” Botelho replied.

Also Monday, the Education Committee held a public hearing on Sen. Lydia Brasch’s proposal to update the state’s law on teaching “Americanism.” The bill doesn’t define Americanism, but does say things like “The youth in our state should be committed to the

ideas and values of our country’s democracy and the constitutional republic established by the people.”

Current law, dating from 1949, requires school districts to have committees on Americanism, but Brasch said some districts have not been following the law. Her bill would require Americanism subcommittees of school boards to meet three times a year, including at least one public hearing, and keep minutes of those meetings. Brasch said renewal of the law is important. “This bill is needed now more than ever. America faces a crisis of identity in a post-modern world. And it is only through discipline, determination and courage that we can slow the degradation of the American spirit,” Brasch said.

The bill would also require that students be given the same 100-question test on civics that immigrants wishing to become citizens are given, although they would not have to pass it in order to graduate. It drew support from a number of testifiers, including Andrew Shelburn, a senior at Lincoln Southwest High School, who said he thinks students are taught more about criticism of the United States than about its accomplishments.

Among those opposing the proposal was John Bonaiuto of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Boniauto took issue with the requirements for Americanism subcommittees of boards of education. “School boards do not have subcommittees that hold open meetings and take minutes and take testimony. That’s what school boards are for,” Bonaiuto said.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposal.

Also Monday, Sen. Dan Watermeier said he is working on a new approach to his proposal from last year to require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases by Nebraskans. Last year, Watermeier’s bill advanced through one round of debate before getting bogged down by objections from Attorney General Doug Peterson and Gov. Pete Ricketts that it was unconstitutional. Those objections were based on a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as the Quill decision, that said states could not force companies that didn’t have a physical presence in a state to collect those taxes.

Now, the court has accepted a case testing the constitutionality of a South Dakota law that requires companies with more than $100,000 of sales in a state to collect the tax. Watermeier said he will try to change his bill anticipating a new decision. “The amendment that I’m going to propose is going to say if and when Quill is overturned, we are ready in the state of Nebraska to put all those provisions in place. That the executive branch now has the tools it needs to go straight into telling the online retailers that they need to collect and remit those sales taxes,” he said.

Watermeier estimated that could bring in $60 to $80 million a year – significant revenue at a time when the state’s facing a projected $173 million revenue shortfall over this and the next fiscal year. But even if the South Dakota law is found constitutional, professor Adam Timmesch of the University of Nebraska College of Law said Nebraska can’t start collecting sales tax without passing legislation like Watermeier’s LB44. “As the law currently stands, even if the Supreme Court acts, the state would not be in a position to start requiring the collection of the tax. And LB44 would have in there that if the Supreme Court did act, the statute would be modified and then the state would have the authority to start requiring collection of the tax,” he said.

Otherwise, Watermeier said, the state would have to wait until next year’s legislative session to act, losing out on a year’s worth of revenue. Watermeier said he hopes to have his bill up for debate in the next two or three weeks.