Wildfire bill highlights fiscal concerns; STD proposal meets resistance

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March 25, 2013 - 5:43pm

Questions about a bill to fight wildfires in Nebraska underscored a money crunch, while a proposal to deal with sexually transmitted diseases sparked resistance at the Capitol today/Monday.

The wildfire bill comes after last year’s record-setting fires that burned about half a million acres in northwest and north central Nebraska. Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis wants to attack the problem on a number of fronts. He wants to station two single engine aerial tankers, one each in Valentine and Chadron, to fight fires. He wants to expand a program for the state to buy excess federal firefighting equipment. And he want to spend more state money to curb the spread of eastern red cedar trees, which he says are spreading like weeds across the state and providing more fuel for future fires. Overall, the bill would cost about $3.5 million over the next two years.

Supporting the bill, Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion tried to put that sum into perspective. "We take a lot of money from the taxpayer over here, we give it to the person over here who made bad decisions in their life, they’ve had unfortunate things happen to them. And I get that we’ve got a social contract with our state that we’re going to allow that," he said. "We’re going to spend probably $700 million this year helping people with taxpayer money. But here we’re asking for a few million dollars to actually protect people. And that’s one of the core functions of government."

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said the bill sounds like a good idea. But Lathrop estimated there were $150 million worth of good ideas chasing $16 million to $19 million worth of available money outside the main state budget package. "I appreciate Sen. Kintner’s remarks. One of our first functions is to protect people," he said, before adding "How did we get in this spot? Well, a bunch of guys seem to be letting their red cedars grow. And so now we got a red cedar problem. Is it our problem? Is it a bigger problem than properly funding foster care?"

Among bills competing for money are proposals to extend services for foster care youth aging out of the system, at a cost to the state of $7 million over the next two years. Another proposal with a big price tag is Lathrop’s priority bill to provide tax incentives for wind power, estimated to cost the state $11 million in tax revenues over the next two years.

Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo suggested the landowners’ share of the cost of red cedar removal might have to be increased from the 25 percent currently in the legislation. The Legislature then voted 36-0 first round approval of the bill.

Lawmakers also began debating a proposal sponsored by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard aimed at fighting the spread of chlamydia and gonorrhea. Howard’s bill seeks to prevent pregnant women from becoming reinfected with the diseases by letting them take home an extra prescription for their sexual partner if he can’t or won’t come in to see the doctor.

Kintner objected, offering an amendment that a parent or guardian would have to be informed if of the prescription if either partner is under 18 years old. Otherwise, he said, the problem could just recur. "There is absolutely nothing to stop someone from getting treated for chlamydia, coming back getting treated again, coming back getting treated again and again and again and again and again," he said. "If the parent’s involved maybe they have a conversation. Maybe they talk about steps you can take to not get chlamydia. Maybe the parent becomes aware of what’s going on with his child."

Howard said Nebraska has allowed treating minors for sexually transmitted diseases without notifying their parents since 1972. Putting that requirement into law now would work against the purpose of the bill, she said.

"If we were to pass this amendment, we would be the first and only state in country to allow for parental notification for STD treatment and examination. The only state in the country. The concern is that if minors are required to notify parents, they’ll be less likely to seek testing and treatment," said Howard.

Kintner’s amendment failed, attracting only four votes, with 21 senators opposed. The Legislature then recessed for the day without voting on Howard’s proposal.

Last year, senators voted 24-21 against similar legislation, but there’s been significant turnover in the Legislature since then.

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