Flag, Medicaid, Abortion Stir Discussion

Feb. 22, 2019, 5:51 p.m. ·


Listen To This Story

In the Nebraska Legislature Friday, debate continued on a proposal to revise a law on civics education; senators got an update on Medicaid expansion; and federal action added a new element to the controversy over who gets family planning funds in Nebraska.

It was the third day of debate on Sen. Julie Slama’s proposal to update Nebraska’s law requiring civics education. Slama cited a study to support her argument that civics education in high school is needed. The study looked at how many people in various age groups could pass the same test foreigners must pass to become U.S. citizens.

“There was a really significant age gap in this civic literacy. The Wilson Foundation found that 74 percent of senior citizens given this test answered a sufficient number of questions correctly to pass the test. However, only 20 percent of those under the age of 45 could reach the needed 60 percent score necessary to pass,” Slama said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers proposed to repeal the entire existing law, which promotes “Americanism” and dates to the Cold War. The day before, Chambers longstanding criticism of the American flag as a “rag” because of the country’s history of racism had provoked an emotional response from Sen. Tom Brewer, a wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.

“For those of us that have brought home those that have been lost, it’s hard to refer to the flag as a ‘rag,’ because you have to fold it and you have to give it to the parents. That’s awful hard to do. And to not call them heroes – I don’t know what else you call them. They gave everything. So, I would just ask that you remember: all we’re trying to do is fill our ranks and do what we have to do to make sure that those things that keep our country free are able to continue,” Brewer said.

Friday, Chambers, an African American, replied to the criticism from Brewer, a Native American. He referred to the Constitution’s treatment of slaves, including counting them as three-fifths of a person. “I do think that flag is a rag, because that rag is what was sanctifying and flying over this Constitution. You know where it acknowledged Sen. Brewer’s people? In counting for representation it said “or American Indians not taxed.” They were not taxed. Therefore they would not be counted for purpose of representation. So the reference to them is not a degrading one. It is acknowledging a sovereignty in them as a people. So he can tear up about that rag. But I won’t,” Chambers said.

Senators voted 35-1 against Chambers’ attempt to repeal the entire “Americanism” statute. A first round vote on the proposal to update the law is expected Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Executive Board held a hearing on a proposal to create a task force to oversee Medicaid expansion, which was approved by voters last November. The newly expanded program is expected to add about 94,000 people to the 245,000 currently on Medicaid.

Speaker of the Legislature Sen. Jim Scheer grilled Matthew Van Patton, who is overseeing Medicaid expansion for the Department of Human Services, on whether the new people would get the same benefits as the people currently being served. “I’m not asking which coverages may be included or may not be included. My question is very simplistic. Are the coverages going to be the same?” Scheer asked.

“Our intent at this point is that they are. The coverages will remain intact. Access to those different components for this population may be structured differently. It may be tiered,” Van Patton replied.

Van Patton was not immediately available to clarify what he meant by ‘tiered.’ But in other states, that has meant people are eligible for different levels of services, depending on what kind of preventative services they participate in.

And lawmakers are considering the effect of a federal decision announced Friday to bar Title X family planning funds from going to organizations, like Planned Parenthood, that counsel for or perform abortions. Federal law already prohibits funds from being used for abortions, but critics say funds going to Planned Parenthood could indirectly support the procedure.

Nebraska enacted a similar restriction in last year’s state budget, but the Appropriations Committee has so far left it out of this year’s budget.

In a news release, Gov. Pete Ricketts reacted to the federal announcement, applauding President Trump and his administration. Ricketts added “In Nebraska, I will continue to work with state senators to ensure that our budget and Title X funding continues to reflect our pro-life values.”

Opponents are expected to try and block the federal rule, meaning the state action may still have an effect. Planned Parenthood had received about $250,000 a year in family planning funds from the state before last year’s budget action; currently, it is not been receiving any.