Family planning funds, public power information spark concerns

The Natural Resources Committee holds public hearing on public power information (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 7, 2018 - 5:26pm

Concerns about restricting family planning services, and about providing competitors information about public power operations, were aired in the Legislature Wednesday.

The way the proposed state budget currently stands, it would add a restriction on federal Title X family planning funds. That restriction says no funds should be given to an organization that performs abortions – a provision that would affect Planned Parenthood. But the restriction also says it would apply to any organization that “refers for” abortion.

That language concerns the Health Care Association of Nebraska, an organization that represents seven federally qualified health centers that operate 42 clinics across the state. Last year, Amy Behnke of the association said, those clinics served 12,000 low income women and men with family planning services. The association itself does not provide abortions.

Sen. Kate Bolz led the effort to get rid of the language about referrals. “I think it is important that the federally qualified health centers continue to provide those services to populations in our community. And we need to address what they perceive to be the problematic language which is language prohibiting certain referrals,” Bolz said.

Bolz says association members follow federal regulations, which permit organizations to provide “neutral, factual information, non-directive counseling, or referral upon request.”

Other members of the Appropriations Committee resisted Bolz’s attempt to change the language about referrals. Sen. Dan Watermeier said the proposed language had been thoroughly discussed already. “I want to make sure that we protect the Title X funding; that we’re not at risk of losing our Title X funding. And I think this strengthens our case to have this language in the budget,” Watermeier said. “It’s clearly stood the test of time through what the administration has looked at and the federal changes that were made. So I feel like we’ve discussed it. We had really good inside the hearing. We had good debate in our executive sessions and I feel like I’m comfortable going to the floor.”

In addition to Bolz, Sens. Anna Wishart and Tony Vargas supported changing the language, which Watermeier and Sens. Rob Clements, John Stinner, Mike McDonnell, and Robert Hilkemann did not support. The committee is expected to vote Thursday on sending the budget proposal to the full Legislature to debate.

Wednesday afternoon, the Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on a proposal by its chairman, Sen. Dan Hughes, to protect certain information from the state’s public power districts from disclosure.

 The proposal follows a Nebraska Supreme Court decision last month that the Nebraska Public Power District would have to disclose information sought by Aksamit Resource Management, a private power company that wants to compete with NPPD. NPPD objected to Aksamit’s request for information including costs, profits, rate outlooks, generation and revenue from particular plants.

The Supreme Court said Nebraska’s public records law prevents releasing information that could be helpful to competitors only if it would also serve no public purpose. But it also said the Legislature could change that requirement. That’s what Hughes proposes to do, by exempting public power from disclosing commercial information that would give an advantage to competitors.

Speaking in support of the legislation, Shelley Sahling-Zart of the Nebraska Power Association used a football analogy. “You’ve got lots of information of the university’s athletic department’s that’s public. You can look at their schedules. You can look at their budgets. You can look at rosters, you can look at coaches’ salaries. You get all of that. You get that from us too, by the way,” Sahling-Zart said. “But you know what you’re not going to get? You’re not going to get Coach Frost’s playbook. How competitive would the Husker football team be if he was required to divulge the Husker playbook but nobody else in the Big Ten had to divulge theirs?  We probably wouldn’t be very competitive. And what we’re asking you to do is protect our playbook.”

The proposal was opposed by media representatives including Korby Gilbertson, a lobbyist representing Media of Nebraska, of which NET is a member. Gilbertson proposed language that would create a much more specific exemption from public disclosure for information about specific generating units costs and revenue that would give an advantage to business competitors. “We want them to be able to protect specific information. We just want to make sure it’s not so broad that they lose their accountability to the citizens of Nebraska,” Gilbertson said.

The committee is scheduled to meet Thursday morning to discuss sending the proposal to the full Legislature for debate.



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