In an unusual display of intra-party criticism, Gov. Dave Heineman today lashed out at Speaker of the Legislature and fellow Republican Mike Flood. The dispute came over bills on prenatal benefits for illegal immigrants, and city sales taxes.
The governor wasn't scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday. But 12 hours after the Legislature gave first-round approval Tuesday night to a bill providing prenatal care for the children of illegal immigrants, he called reporters together to read them a letter he wrote to the speaker of the Legislature. "Dear Speaker Flood," he began. "I am extraordinarily disappointed in your support of taxpayer funded benefits for illegal aliens."
Heineman attacked the proposal as one that would spend millions of dollars over the next decade on illegal aliens instead of on things like schools for Nebraska citizens. He then went after Flood for supporting another bill, which would allow cities to increase sales taxes, if voters approve. The governor then tied up the package neatly with a rhetorical bow, declaring "Unless you and the Legislature reverse course, the legacy of this session will be one in which illegals were given preferential treatment over legal Nebraska citizens. This will be a session remembered for a tax increase on legal working Nebraska men and women while illegal aliens were provided taxpayer-funded benefits."
It was an extraordinary performance for a Republican governor who hasn't been shy about savaging Democratic critics, but has generally been gentler with members of his own party. Fourteen of 30 votes for the prenatal bill came from registered Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, as did 18 of 29 votes for the sales tax bill. Asked why he singled out Flood, Heineman said "He's the leader on both of these efforts and I want Nebraskans to understand I'm going to stand up and fight. These represent core values in our state. We don't support taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal aliens. We don't want a tax increase on middle class families."
Half an hour later, Flood met with reporters in his Capitol office. He said illegal immigration is an important issue, but defended his vote for prenatal care as a pro-life measure. Flood referred to a bill he got passed two years ago prohibiting abortions more than 20 weeks after fertilization. "If I am going to stand up in the Legislature and protect babies at 20 weeks from abortion, and hordes of senators and citizens are going to stand behind me - and that's pro-life -- then I'm going to be pro-life when it's tough, too. And I'm going to apply the balancing test. Because you can't - from my perspective - you can't have it both ways." Flood also disputed that the bill would cost taxpayers money, since birth and infant care are provided to illegal immigrants who show up at a hospital with or without prenatal care. "It makes sense as a pro-life bill, and it makes sense from a fiscal standpoint," he said. "I believe the bill costs $500,000 a year. Babies in a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for small newborn babies -- you could eat that up with one child over a couple of weeks."
A legislative fiscal estimate puts the state cost at about $650,000 a year, with another $1.9 million coming from federal funds, to provide care to about 1,100 women.
Heineman suggested that providing prenatal care would act as a magnet attracting more illegal immigrants to the state; Kelley Hasenauer, a nurse practitioner who's done doctoral research on the question at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said studies in other states had not found that to be the case.
Flood declined to discuss the dynamics of his disagreement with the governor, but one of his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, defended the Republican speaker: "Speaker Flood should be commended for his consistent record of protecting the unborn, while Governor Heineman should be ashamed of his consistent record of putting politics ahead of people," Nordquist said.
Flood also disputed the governor's characterization of the city sales tax proposal as a tax increase, saying "We're not raising anybody's taxes. It's a vote of the people."
The bill would require approval by 70 percent of the city council members to put a proposal on the ballot, where it would have to be approved in a popular vote by city residents. Flood said it would help address infrastructure needs like in his city, Norfolk, where it could be used to fund construction of a new natural gas pipeline needed to attract industry.
For his part, Heineman promised to veto both the city sales tax and prenatal care bills, if they reach his desk.
Meanwhile, voters will be asked to decide in November on two other measures affecting the Legislature. One would allow senators to serve three four-year terms instead of the current two-term limit. The second would raise legislative pay from $12,000 a year to $22,500. Both received final approval on Wednesday.