Two controversial bills got final approval in the Legislature today (Wednesday). But lawmakers' votes are almost certainly not the last word on those subjects. One bill deals with oil pipelines, the other with prenatal care for the children of mothers who are in the country illegally.
The oil pipeline bill extends the authority of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to conduct an expedited review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It was approved on a vote of 44-5. Papillion Sen. Jim Smith, sponsor of the bill, said he's pleased. "I'm very satisfied. I think that bill well serves Nebraskans. It stays with the spirit of the special session legislation and it provides the protections for Nebraskans that we need in both the near term and long term siting process," Smith said.
On the eve of the vote, pipeline opponents including Jane Kleeb of the group BOLD Nebraska criticized using the Department of Environmental Quality, rather than the Public Service Commission, which was to have taken over authority to evaluate the pipeline route if DEQ's authority were not extended. "First and foremost, the head of DEQ is appointed by the governor. And since the governor has made it very clear that he thinks the pipeline should be approved and approved fast, we think that taints the DEQ's process," she said.
A TransCanada spokesman said the company is pleased and will soon talk to NDEQ about a new route that avoids the Sandhills. Opponents say they expect suits to be filed against the new law.
On prenatal care, lawmakers voted 31-15 to give final passage to the bill. Afterwards, Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, sponsor of the bill, said the bill would raise the chances of healthy babies being born. Supporters also say it will save money, since even children born to illegal immigrants on U.S. soil are American citizens and entitled to care. Campbell read from a note from a supporter who works at a clinic where a pregnant woman showed up in late March having received no prenatal care. The woman was sent to an Omaha hospital where her baby was born and is still in intensive care. "The mom had an infection. A couple of dollars for an antibiotic, which would have been seen in a prenatal visit, would have saved thousands of dollars. Plus our doctor believes that the baby may have permanent disabilities," Campbell read.
Gov. Dave Heineman has already promised to veto the bill, saying it's wrong for taxpayers to have to provide benefits to illegal immigrants. Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy, who opposes the bill, said he wants people to weigh in before the Legislature votes next week on overriding the governor's veto.
"I'm hoping that the people of Nebraska will make their feelings known to each and every one of their senators, wherever they are across the state. And I believe that the passage of time between now and next Wednesday the 18th will give a great number of Nebraskans the opportunity to make their voices heard," said McCoy. "I know I'm hearing from a large number of my constituents on this issue, and they largely support my position on this issue, and that is, they are not in favor of benefits for illegal immigrants." Senators will also vote next Wednesday on whether or not to override other vetoes, including one of a bill to allow betting on previously-recorded horse races and a promised veto of giving cities permission to increase sales taxes with voter approval. And they may take up other overrides, if Heineman vetoes other bills as well.
In another development Wednesday, the governor signed a series of bills dealing with child welfare reform. The measures include increasing pay for foster parents, creating a Children's Commission to devise a strategic plan and an Inspector General to watch over trends in the system, and planning for a new computer system. The governor signed two related bills last week, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to create a separate child welfare budget, manage most child welfare cases, and hire enough caseworkers to meet national standards.