Higher speed limits aired; abortion language in budget pending

Feb. 6, 2018, 4:44 a.m. ·

Sen. John Murante discusses higher speed limits (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Supporters and opponents of raising Nebraska’s speed limits squared off in a public hearing Tuesday. And the chairman of the Appropriations Committee says it will probably be weeks before the committee decides whether to include controversial abortion language in the budget bill.

Sen. John Murante introduced the higher speed limit bill, which is supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts. It would allow increases from 60 to 65 miles an hour on certain stretches of state highways, and 75 to 80 on portions of the interstate. Murante said that is based on what is called the “85th percentile” -- the observed maximum speed that 85 percent of people travel, a standard traffic engineers use to minimize crashes and promote a safe traffic flow. “That is exactly what this bill is all about -- ensuring that our speed limits are set at the safest speeds for our citizens,” he said.

Murante said when South Dakota increased its speed limits, it actually saw a 13 percent drop in fatalities. His proposal drew support from the Nebraska Department of Transportation, engineers from Lancaster and Sarpy Counties, and others.

Source: Nebraska Department of Transportation

Safety advocates opposed the proposal. Rose White of AAA said an 80 mile an hour limit on the interstate would cut only about two and a half minutes off travel time between Omaha and Lincoln, while increasing stopping distances for cars by 40 feet, and for trucks even more. Laurie Klostervoer of the Nebraska Safety Council says studies show if speed limits are raised, the so-called “85th percentile” speed that most drivers travel goes up as well. “The 85th percentile’s not a stationary point. It is rather a moving target that increases when speed limits are raised. If speed limits are raised to meet a current 85th percentile speed, a new higher 85th percentile will likely result,” she said.

Representatives of Crete Carrier and the Nebraska Trucking Association also opposed the bill, arguing that many trucks have governors that limit their speed to 65 miles an hour, and increasing the speed differential between them and other traffic would result in more unsafe driving and accidents. It will now be up to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee to decide to decide if the bill advances.

Also Tuesday, Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John Stinner said it may be weeks before the committee decides whether or not to include controversial abortion language proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts in its budget bill. Ricketts has proposed banning Title X federal family planning funds from going to an organization, such as Planned Parenthood, that also performs abortions. The proposal drew a large crowd to a hearing Monday that stretched into the evening. Ten people testified in favor of the measure, two were neutral, and 24 were opposed.

Among supporters was Paige Edwards, president of UNL Students for Life. “I am the target of the abortion industry. Forty-four percent of abortions are performed on women 18 to 24 years old. This industry wants me to know that I can do as I please without consequence; that I need abortion to lead a successful and filling life; that parenthood and following your dreams are mutually exclusive; and that supporting mother and baby is not worth the work. Our state government is responsible for funding this industry,” she said.

Federal regulations prohibit using family planning funds for abortion, but critics argue giving money to Planned Parenthood indirectly supports the organization’s abortion services.

Among those opposing Ricketts’ proposal was Julie Reno, who ran the state’s Title X program before retiring in December. Reno fought back against the argument the proposal was needed to avoid endangering federal funds. “The federal government has never had a problem. The problem has been here because it’s been a constant witch hunt against birth control and family planning. And now you’re trying to put something in an appropriation that is part of a policy,” Reno said. “This doesn’t have any place here at all. This is women’s health care and men’s health care and people’s lives. And you’re trying to muck this up.”

Karen Bowling of the Nebraska Family Alliance, supporting the proposal, said federal funds would keep coming to Nebraska. “If a clinic is involved in abortion-related activities and chooses not to follow the guidelines, they would no longer be eligible. However, and I think this is very important, there will not be fewer funds distributed across the state to eligible clinics. The same amount of government funds will remain available for women and men who use Title X services,” Bowling said.

But Jeff Tracy of the Health Center Association of Nebraska, which runs seven community health clinics across the state, expressed concern about the proposal’s ban on funding to organizations that refer for abortions. “We are required to provide referral options. It doesn’t mean that we make the referral, but it means that we provide that information if somebody says, for whatever reason, that ‘I feel like I need to terminate this pregnancy,’” Tracy said. “Our concern is if that word ‘referral’ is interpreted broadly, it could mean that somebody could accuse us of having referred a patient for an abortion, when in fact we were providing that information to them to let them know where they could receive an abortion, if they chose to do so.”

Stinner said the committee will probably not discuss whether to include the governor’s proposed language in the budget bill until early March.

And in legislative floor debate Tuesday, Sen. Ernie Chambers continued to complain about the lack of explanation for the sudden resignation of Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Max Kelch. Chambers read from an Omaha World-Herald article that said Kelch resigned in the wake of an ethics investigation involving sexual comments to women. Kelch has declined requests to comment.