LINCOLN — State lawmakers held their ground Wednesday on a controversial bill to restore taxpayer-funded prenatal care for the babies of illegal immigrants.
Senators advanced Legislative Bill 599 to the final stage of consideration, rebuffing Gov. Dave Heineman on the issue for the second day in a row.
Earlier in the day, Heineman took the unusual step of calling a press conference to chastise a fellow Republican, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk, for his support of the bill.
While governors routinely criticize the Legislature as a whole, it was the first time in memory that the state's chief executive singled out a speaker who is a fellow Republican.
Heineman said he was "extraordinarily disappointed" that Flood supported LB 599, and that he had changed his mind and was now supporting a bill that allows cities, with voter approval, to increase local sales taxes by a half-cent.
"Unless you and the Legislature reverse course, the legacy of this session will be one in which illegals were given preferential treatment over legal Nebraska citizens," the governor wrote in a letter to Flood.
The vote Wednesday on the prenatal care bill was 29-16, with one supporter absent. The vote on the measure Tuesday was 30-16. Thirty votes are needed to override an expected Heineman veto.
Heineman, during his press conference, said he had singled out Flood because he was a "leader" in the efforts to pass the two bills.
Flood later said he didn't see the governor's attack as "personal."
He would not comment on why he was singled out when 13 other Republicans also voted for LB 599.
Those Republicans were named in a legislative alert sent out by the state GOP, which also praised the 16 GOP lawmakers who voted against the bill.
Lawmakers ignored Heineman's letter during Wednesday's debate, focusing instead on the importance of prenatal care and the state's policy of not providing benefits for illegal immigrants.
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha said the bill makes sense from the standpoint of avoiding premature births and health problems for babies whose care will be paid for by the state Medicaid program after they are born.
"What we're talking about is making a small investment upfront to prevent these big costs that we will be paying," he said.
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont said it would be women in the country illegally who would be receiving the care.
"I do not support Nebraska taxpayers having to pay for people who have broken our laws and are here illegally," he said.
But Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, who introduced the bill, said prenatal care is for the benefit of the unborn child.
The bill would provide coverage for those babies through the children's health insurance program, commonly called Kids Connection.
State officials estimate that the measure would provide coverage for 1,162 unborn children per year, at a cost of $655,000 in state funds and $1.9 million in federal funds. Most, but not all, of those covered would be the children of illegal immigrants.
In 2010, Nebraska cut off Medicaid-funded prenatal care for about 1,600 low-income women.
State officials cited federal regulations requiring Medicaid coverage to be based on a woman's eligibility. The state had been providing coverage based on eligibility of the unborn baby.
About half of those affected by the cutoff were illegal immigrants. Among others affected were women who lost benefits for failing to comply with all requirements. Coverage was restored for some of those women through legislation last year.
Flood said he has supported bills in the past that addressed illegal immigration, but LB 599 was different because it focuses on the health and life of unborn children.
Flood, a possible candidate for governor in 2014, would not comment on whether he thought the governor's attack was politically motivated. Heineman has said he is supporting Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy in that race.
Three legislative colleagues did criticize Heineman for his verbal assault on the speaker.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, a registered independent, called the comments "brutal" and a "sign of frustration" by the governor, who has seen the Legislature "assert" its power the past two years.
"I was surprised to hear such a lashing out," Ashford said. "It's not productive."
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, a Democrat, said she didn't appreciate the criticism of Flood, and predicted that it would backfire.
Nordquist, also a Democrat, praised Flood for standing "with pro-life Nebraskans to protect and support the lives of unborn babies."
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