Governor Pete Ricketts. Credit: Gage Skidmore CC 3.0.

Following reports that some Title X funds have wrongly gone to abortion-related expenses, Nebraska is considering stronger budget restrictions, but some legislators are resisting.

“It has long been a policy that we do not use taxpayer dollars to fund abortions,” Gov. Pete Ricketts told CNA March 22. “What we have seen in Nebraska is that these Title X dollars, according to a couple of our audits, have been used to fund abortions.”

“Nebraska is a pro-life state, and that our budget ought to reflect that,” Ricketts said. “I believe that abortion is inherently wrong, so personally I do not want to see those dollars to go to that, but in general even those who are pro-choice understand that it’s bad policy to have federal tax dollars fund something that is so controversial and really ought not be funded by fed tax dollars.”

Gov. Ricketts backs proposed budget language that would require clinics that receive Title X funds to be “objectively independent” from abortion providers, meaning they have “legal, physical and financial separation.”

The unicameral legislature narrowly voted to pass the $8.8 billion budget bill, L.B. 944, to the second round of debate, the Omaha World Herald reports. On March 21 a vote for cloture, to end debate on the bill, failed by three votes. Three members of the Appropriations Committee were recorded as “present not voting,” Sens. Kate Bolz, Anna Wishart, and Tony Vargas, who is Catholic.

Under the legislature’s current rules, which legislators may suspend by vote, the budget bill must advance by Friday, March 23.

Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, told CNA that some legislators are under political pressure to remove the provision.

“Overall, a majority of Nebraska state legislators have pro-life values, and want to provide support for mothers and protect unborn children,” he said. “As we’ve seen throughout the country, we’ve noticed that some legislators seem to be succumbing to the pressure of abortion lobbyists and special interest groups. That is always a pressure of which to be aware.”

The 2015 and 2016 Nebraska statewide audits found that abortion-related expenses were wrongly funded using taxpayer dollars, according to a summary from Marion Miner, the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s associate director for pro-life and family issues.

The expenses included a nearly $2,000 payment for abortion-related physician fees through Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. Such misappropriations would put federal funding to the state at risk given federal rules against funding abortion, state auditor Charlie Janssen told the Appropriations Committee in Feb. 8 testimony.

Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln has backed the proposed policy, saying it “protects the health clinics’ ability to provide the best healthcare for men and women by ensuring that Nebraska’s Title X dollars are not compromised.”

Ricketts said the state budget rules “can ensure that those health care dollars that we’re getting from the federal government are not being used to provide or subsidize abortion.”

“That is something that is not unwarranted in our budget,” he said, pointing to similar provisions barring funding for biomedical research involving human fetuses.

He compared the limits to other rules like the Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funding for overseas organizations that promote or perform abortions.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, however, objected to the ban on funds for abortion providers and characterized it as a policy statement.

“What social policy is going to be in the budget next?” she said, the Lincoln Journal-Star reports. “We could talk about gambling and helmets and property taxes and environmental issues. Let's just put it all in the budget and then we don't have to have bills or committee hearings.”

About $1.5 million in Title X grants goes through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, aiming to provide services like well-woman exams, STD testing and treatment, HPV testing and vaccinations, and contraception. The leading grant recipient is Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which receives about $300,000 per year, according to the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

“Whether it is direct or indirect, tax payer money should not go to abortion services,” said Venzor. “The pro-life provision in the state budget simply keeps these clinics accountable and ensures that taxpayer dollars are not used for the killing of unborn life.”

In January, the Omaha World-Herald said the provision would cut funding from Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland said the money helps its clinics serve about 8,000 patients. Its clinics in Omaha and Lincoln also perform abortions.

Ricketts told CNA it was “absolutely false” to claim the funding rules would limit women’s services.

“The exact same amount of dollars will be spent after we pass this bill, with this budget language in it, as was being spent before,” he said. “Anybody is able to apply for those dollars.”

“The clear majority of legislators want to have this Title X language in there,” Ricketts said. He accused three members of the appropriations committee of voting the bill out of committee then working to undermine it.

“They’re playing reckless games with the budget process. If they had a problem with this bill, they ought to not have voted for it out of committee,” he said. “The legislature still has time to address this. They still have plenty of time to go back and pass this bill.”

Venzor encouraged voters and legislators in other states who want to implement similar restrictions on Title X money to contact the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

“We’re all working hard across the country to defend life and advance the common good, and we should learn from each other,” he said.