Catholic Church influence on state policy discussed; tax talk continues

Sen. John McCollister speaks in the Nebraska Legislature on Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 20, 2017 - 6:09pm

Debate over confirming the state’s chief medical officer turned into a discussion of the power of the Catholic Church in the Legislature Monday. And the Revenue Committee continued to discuss tax changes, amid disagreement over scheduling those changes out into the future.

Monday’s debate was officially about confirming Dr. Thomas Williams as the state’s chief medical officer, in charge of overseeing credentialing and licensing for health care professionals and facilities. But several senators used it as an occasion to talk about issues including the Department of Health and Human Services’ refusal to enact rules and regulations, opposed by the Nebraska Catholic Conference, regarding psychologists.

Sen. Adam Morfeld said the issue has been fought over since 2008, and lack of such a rule allows psychologists to refuse to refer LGBT patients to other counselors if the counselor objects to their “lifestyle.” Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks voiced her objection as well. “I don’t think anybody has a problem with somebody who is of the Catholic faith feeling like they can’t be the best psychologist for whatever client they may have before them,” Pansing Brooks said. “But what we’re talking about is just needing to refer a client to protect the public safety, the client’s safety, and to make sure that there’s a positive referral. That is the only sticking point -- the referral. How crazy is that?”

Sen. John McCollister said Williams was a good candidate for chief medical officer. But McCollister said he was troubled by the Department’s lack of response to a letter sent by himself and four other senators last December on the lack of rules and regulations.

Williams won confirmation easily on a vote of 39-2, with only Morfeld and Sen. Ernie Chambers voting no.

In a later interview, Tom Venzor of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said the church’s position had been misrepresented. Venzor said Catholic counselors would be willing to help LGBT people suffering from depression, for example. But he said they would not be able to provide marriage counseling to someone in a same-sex marriage, because of Catholic beliefs about marriage.

Venzor said the Catholic Conference had offered to have counselors make referrals to a general list of counselors. “Since they cannot provide the service themselves for reasons of conscience, they would not directly refer that individual to a service that they would not directly provide. And so in that regard, they weren’t willing to make a direct referral and they’re not willing to make direct referral, but they’re willing to make a referral to a general list of providers. And that would put it in the hands of the individual to find the right person, the most fitting or suited person for their needs,” Venzor said.

Williams’ confirmation wasn’t the end of discussion of religion Monday. The next bill up was an appropriation connected to the issuance of “Choose Life” license plates. Sen. Chambers linked the two issues together and, while saying individual Catholics could do what they like, condemned the Catholic Church’s influence on state policy.

“When there are official positions taken by the Catholic Conference, by the Catholic Church, then the attack is against them legitimately because they bring their hides in here in a political setting, and they don’t want to be treated like other soiled contaminated political operatives. And to dictate to HHS is inexcusable. Yet this bill on these license plates – ‘Choose Life’ – that’s a Catholic issue. They can say ‘Well other people are ‘Choose Life’. It’s a Catholic issue,” Chambers said.

Sen. Mark Kolterman disagreed. “This isn’t a Catholic issue. It’s obviously not a Catholic issue. I happen to be a Lutheran, there’s Baptists, there’s Presbyterians in this body, there’s Methodists that all support the prolife movement. So Sen. Chambers as you talk about the Catholic Church it offends me, and it offends the other Christians in the body,” Kolterman said.

But Chambers, a graduate of the Catholic-affiliated Creighton University and Creighton Law School, refused to let Lutherans share the spotlight of his criticism. The 79-year old legislator referred to Martin Luther’s nailing 95 theses critical of the Catholic Church to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. “The worst thing that Luther did was to nail some pieces of paper on door, isn’t that right?” Chambers asked.

“You are absolutely correct. Five hundred years ago,” Kolterman replied.

“And I watched him do it. I said ‘Go, go!” Chambers quipped.

Despite Chambers protestations, lawmakers voted to end his filibuster against the license plate appropriation bill, and voted 35-3 to give it second-round approval.

Monday afternoon, members of the Revenue Committee continued discussing proposed income and sales tax changes.

Sen. Burke Harr objected to a proposal to schedule future income tax reductions that would be “triggered” if state revenue is projected to increase by at least three and a half percent for the year. “Just ‘cause revenue goes up three and a half percent percent does not mean that expenses stay at zero. You may have a situation where revenue goes up three and a half percent percent but inflation goes up five percent or expenses go up five percent. That’s the concern,” Harr said.

But Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who supports using triggers, said Harr’s idea of cutting taxes year by year if revenues permit was unrealistic. Lindstrom said scheduling reductions now makes sense, especially for small businesses. “They just want to see certainty that over the next eight years we’re going to have a lower corporate income tax rate and individual income tax rate. I think we’re doing it in a responsible way with the trigger mechanism,” Lindstrom said. “It’s really I think a philosophical discussion that we’ve had as to how do we grow Nebraska and the tax policy that we’re going to have moving forward.”

The committee is talking about using an existing $220 million property tax credit fund for tax relief, with $160 million of it going to schools to offset property taxes, and another $60 million to income tax payers. Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Smith was asked if that doesn’t mean that some property taxpayers will get less relief. “Some people will be receiving their money back on property, and some will be receiving the money back on income tax,” Smith said.

The committee has not yet voted on what tax plan it will recommend. 




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