LINCOLN — State lawmakers delivered a late-night stunner Tuesday to Gov. Dave Heineman.
On a 30-16 vote, senators gave first-round approval to a bill that would restore taxpayer-funded prenatal care for low-income women including illegal immigrants, a decades-long policy that was ended in 2010.
If Legislative Bill 599 ultimately passes, it would set up a showdown with the governor, who on Tuesday repeated that despite his pro-life views he opposes such aid.
"I support legal immigration, not illegal immigration," Heineman said in a statement. "We should only be using taxpayer funds for legal Nebraska citizens, not for illegal aliens."
The advancement of the bill came as a surprise, coming after a similar bill didn't even come to a vote in 2010.
If the 30 votes hold, that would be enough to override an expected veto from Heineman.
A coalition of senators, led by Kathy Campbell of Lincoln and Mike Flood of Norfolk, pushed the bill to advancement, arguing that restoring the preventive care was not only the morally right thing to do but fiscally prudent — because the state has to pay for birth defects and other complications caused by the lack of prenatal care.
Campbell said that in just one case, the lack of prenatal care for an immigrant mother translated into intensive care of more than $800,000 for taxpayers due to medical complications suffered by her child, who automatically became a U.S. citizen upon birth.
That cost is more than the entire estimated state expense for LB 599, about $650,000 a year. That amount would provide prenatal services for an estimated 1,162 unborn children of illegal immigrants and other low-income mothers.
"The most important underlying issue is the health of these babies," Campbell said. "It matters for a lifetime."
Flood, speaker of the Legislature and a leading abortion opponent, said that in balancing the "rule of law" with the "pro-life position" he has to side with the health of an unborn baby.
"The unborn child should not be punished for the actions of his or her parents," he said. "We should protect the life of an unborn child whenever possible."
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha called Tuesday's vote, which came after 10 p.m., a test of the "sincerity" of senators' pro-life views, saying Heineman has chosen immigration because "that's where he makes his (political) hay."
Two opponents of the legislation, Sens. Beau McCoy of Omaha and Tony Fulton of Lincoln, said you cannot separate the pro-life and immigration issues in the prenatal debate. Critics of LB 599 said that public health clinics have been able to fill the void and that government "can't be all things to all people."
But Campbell said that after two years, there is clear evidence of the fiscal wisdom of offering the low-cost, preventive care to head off lifelong medical problems and expensive intensive care bills.
Rebecca Rayman of Good Neighbor Community Health Center in Columbus said it was no coincidence that her clinic saw four deaths of unborn infants in five months following the end of subsidized prenatal care in 2010.
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