LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska lawmakers are forging ahead slowly this year with a state budget, a new school funding formula, and an overhaul of juvenile services, but many of the most contentious priorities will likely have to wait.
With three weeks left in the session, supporters of a Medicaid expansion bill are still short of the votes needed to overcome a filibuster. A death penalty bill was killed in a similar fashion. A major tax overhaul championed by Gov. Dave Heineman was shelved, in favor of a tax study.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said the Medicaid bill will likely have to wait until next year. He likened it to a drawn-out debate last year over a proposal to restore prenatal care services to the unborn children of illegal immigrants. The state cut off funding for the services in 2010, and supporters weren't able to restore them until the middle of last year, when they overrode Heineman's veto.
"Some people have such a short-sighted viewpoint of 'We won, we lost,'" Krist said. "I was there in 2010, when we went down in flames on prenatal care. It took us years to regroup, to get our stuff together, and build a coalition. But we got it. With (the Medicaid bill), it just may not be the full enchilada."
The Medicaid proposal would extend health care coverage to an estimated 54,000 childless, low-income adults, but Heineman and conservative lawmakers have argued that the program is unsustainable. Supporters have floated a series of compromise measures on Medicaid, including a sunset proposal on the expansion that would let lawmakers reevaluate it, or withdraw altogether if the federal government fails to fund it as promised.
The federal government has agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost for new Medicaid recipients from 2014 to 2016. Aid would gradually decrease until 2020, when the federal government would pay 90 percent of the costs for patients who fall under Medicaid expansion.
The Medicaid bill's sponsor, Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, said Friday that she still hadn't secured the 33 votes needed to force an end to the debate. Campbell said the length of debate on many bills has been unusually high, but she argued that there's no single cause.
Debate on many bills has dragged because of filibusters, including many by longtime Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who returned to the Capitol this year after sitting out four years because of term limits. A coalition of conservative senators railed for days at a time against the Medicaid bill, the budget and the death penalty repeal bill.
This year has also ushered in a class of 10 freshman lawmakers, who are still adjusting to the legislative customs, as well as new committee chairs and a first-year speaker.
"It's tougher this year because you have a lot of those variables," Campbell said. "It takes time to adjust. But once you know the cast of characters, you get a better sense of the Legislature's rhythm."
Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams said the budget will also play a role in what bills end up passing this year. Lawmakers are already scaling back measures intended to help fight wildfires, increase access to mental health services for children, and give better treatment options to troubled juveniles.
"We're going to have to make some tough decisions," Adams said.