The short-lived political honeymoon between the Republican governor and his erstwhile Democratic allies on the roads issue has come to a crashing halt. After weeks of suspense about what he would do, and still expressing reservations, the governor signed the roads bill Wednesday night. The bill sets aside a quarter cent of the state's existing sales tax for road construction, starting in 2013. On several occasions, the governor had warned against making a commitment for two years from now, urging lawmakers to wait and see how the economic recovery proceeding. One such comment came at a March news conference, when the governor said "We don't speculate on future economic growth. Trying to guess what the economy will look like in 2013 is a risky financial strategy. It is unwise."
Omaha Senator Jeremy Nordquist was among the minority of senators, almost all Democrats, who agreed with the governor. They, and he, argued that setting aside tax revenue from an existing source for roads could short other priorities, like schools and health programs. Nordquist took a dim view of where the governor finally came down on the legislation, LB84. "By signing the bill now he's essentially endorsing a risky financial strategy,'" Nordquist said. "He's flip-flopped his position and I think the key point is we still don't know if we can afford LB84. Even with the tremendous uptick in revenue that we've seen, we're still facing a projected 220 million dollar shortfall in the next biennial budget."
A spokeswoman for the governor declined to respond to Nordquist's criticism, saying Heineman had addressed the issues in the statement he put out when he signed the bill. In that statement, Heineman repeated that he was concerned about the bill's affordability. But he said recently improved revenue forecasts mean it's possible the state could afford to spend more on roads, and if not, senators had assured him they would make adjustments. Senator Deb Fischer of Valentine, sponsor of the roads bill, said she doesn't think that will be necessary. "In Nebraska, I think we use a lot of common sense, but we're optimistic," she said. "You know, this cold weather isn't going to last forever. Spring's going to be coming. So you know, we're optimistic people and I certainly feel that way about the economy. We're working hard, it's turning around, revenues are picking up, and LB84 and highway funding are a priority now for this state, and we most certainly are going to be able to fund it."
On the legislative floor, senators gave second round approval to a bill requiring a doctor to be physically present when abortion-inducing drugs are dispensed. Supporters want to prevent what they call webcam abortions, like those available in Iowa, where a woman can visit with a doctor via teleconference and then get the drugs. Supreme Court decisions don't allow measures that put an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions. But they do allow restrictions designed to protect a woman's health. That's what supporters of the bill say their intent is. Senator Ken Haar of Malcolm said that the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra actually has a fatality rate five times greater than mifepristone, used to induce abortions. Haar then asked Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, who's named the abortion restrictions his priority bill, whether the same logic about safety should apply to Viagra.
"Do you feel that that warrants having a doctor present when someone takes that
drug?" he asked.
Bloomfield said he did not. "I certainly wouldn't want a doctor with me if I'm going to take that pill, no," he said. But he added "Again, the results of that pill are certainly not intended to be what we're looking at here."
After a few hours of debate, senators voted 36-9 to give the bill the second of three approvals it will need before being sent to the governor.
Lawmakers gave final approval to another bill aimed at increasing people's access to healthy foods. Omaha Senator Brenda Council's bill seeks to combat so called "food deserts" - urban or rural areas where fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats are not available -- by offering grants or loans for grocery stores, farmers markets, food coops, community gardening projects, mobile markets and other delivery and distribution projects. The bill would use up to 150 thousand dollars from an existing program. It passed on a vote of 30-16.
Governor accused of flip-flopping on roads
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May 17, 2011 - 7:00pm