LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman will buck tradition Wednesday by skipping the customary speech by Nebraska's chief executive on the closing day of the 2012 legislative session.
For at least the past 20 years, governors have delivered a farewell speech on the final day, regardless of acrimony or accolades accompanying the finish.
But state senators won't be establishing new ground if they vote to override Heineman on some of the four remaining bills that he sent back to them.
Only once in the past 15 sessions, in 2004, has the Legislature failed to override at least one gubernatorial veto.
Five times, though, senators have overturned the governor on at least three bills.
And three times — in 2006, 2003 and 1998 — a Nebraska governor has seen at least three vetoes go down in flames in a single day at the end of a session.
That could happen again Wednesday, when lawmakers get four swings at Heineman's vetoes.
“This is not an uncommon practice,” said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, whose 14 years are the most of any current legislator.
“It may seem dramatic or different, but I think this is really the Legislature asserting its prerogative as a separate part of government,” Ashford said.
Lawmakers will seek to override Heineman's vetoes on four bills, including the controversial measure that would restore taxpayer-funded prenatal care for illegal immigrants.
During a press conference Monday, the governor said public opinion is on his side. He said Wednesday's votes will be less of a “governor v. Legislature” showdown than a group of important policy decisions.
“Senators are going to have to answer to their constituents,” Heineman said. “These are votes that will be remembered for a long time.”
State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, the speaker of the Legislature and a key supporter of the prenatal care bill, said he understands that people are upset about illegal immigration but said that Legislative Bill 599 addresses a more complex issue. It involves the health of unborn babies who will become U.S. citizens upon birth, he said, as well as an opportunity to save taxpayer dollars.
“To me, it comes down to the balancing of the two issues,” Flood said. “Obviously, illegal immigration is a problem, and states are left to deal with it. But the fact is that human life begins at conception. This child is an innocent victim in what has become a very red-hot debate.”
The governor rejected the idea that LB 599 is a pro-life issue, saying: “This is about illegal, pregnant women receiving taxpayer-funded benefits. That's what's so infuriating to everyone.”
LB 599 would restore the taxpayer-funded prenatal care that was dropped two years ago.
Supporters have said that when illegal immigrants don't receive proper prenatal care, taxpayers must foot higher bills for complicated deliveries, intensive care and treatment of lifelong birth defects. That's because the babies of illegal immigrants become citizens at birth under the U.S. Constitution, and infants in low-income families qualify for publicly funded health care.
Medical professionals say every $1 spent on prenatal care can head off up to $4 in later health care expenses.
Heineman and opponents of LB 599, however, say passage of the bill could make Nebraska a “sanctuary state” for illegal immigrants.
Charities and churches, Heineman said, should finance the prenatal care. But officials from those groups say they cannot keep up with the demand.
The other bills up for override votes Wednesday are:
» LB 357, which would allow cities, with voter approval, to raise local sales taxes by up to a half-cent for infrastructure projects. Backers say it would allow voters to decide local tax policy and permit shifts from property taxes. Heineman has described it as a tax increase.
» LB 806, which would permit wagering on historical horse races, via video machines, at state Thoroughbred tracks. The goal of the bill, according to supporters, is survival of horse racing in Nebraska and generation of revenue toward construction of a new racetrack in Lincoln. The governor has said that it would expand gambling.
» LB 1020, which would create a $200,000-a-year state grant program to assist with the costs of school-based health centers, which are said to play a role in keeping kids in school. Heineman has said the bill would unconstitutionally expand the use of state lottery funds from educational purposes to health purposes.
Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, the chief sponsor of the historical horse-racing bill, put the odds at even money that all four vetoes would be overturned.
He said opponents of LB 806 are using scare tactics to ward off support for the measure. He said it is inaccurate to think that allowing betting on historical horse races via a video terminal will lead to slot machines and casinos in Nebraska or on Indian reservations.
Lawmakers have already overturned one Heineman veto this year, on LB 1072, which will provide $2.5 million to child-welfare subcontractors in central and western Nebraska that weren't paid when a state contractor, Boys and Girls Home, dropped out of the state's privatization initiative.
The prenatal care bill has generated conflicting public opinion polls, one showing strong support for the idea and another showing strong opposition.
Heineman said he senses that citizen opposition runs as high as 65 percent to 70 percent.
Flood said that his emails were running about even on the prenatal care bill and that he didn't sense any change of heart among lawmakers.
The prenatal care and half-cent sales tax bills have both garnered at least 30 votes of support, which is enough to override the governor's veto.
Lautenbaugh counts 27 supporters for his historical horse-racing bill and says the support “has been understated.”
The health centers bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, received 26 yes votes on final reading and 32 votes in a failed effort to win passage of the bill with the emergency clause, which takes 33 votes.
Heineman on Monday continued to downplay any rift between his office and the Legislature but confirmed that he plans to forgo the end-of-the-session speech to lawmakers. He said he didn't see a need to do it.
It would be the first time that a governor has skipped that annual tradition in at least 20 years, according to the Clerk of the Legislature's Office.
Asked what he thought that meant, Flood responded: “Tough session.”
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