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Restrictions on abortion advance; Pillen approves of bonding on the streets

Abortion would be banned in Nebraska after about six weeks of pregnancy, under a bill advanced today/Wednesday by a legislative committee. And highway construction could be accelerated by borrowing money, according to a proposal approved by Gov. Jim Pillen.

The Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services voted 4-2 Wednesday night to advance a bill that would limit access to abortion in Nebraska. The bill, introduced by Senator Joni Albrecht, would ban abortions after heart activity is detected, usually at around six weeks of pregnancy.

The bill contains exceptions to the ban, including in cases of rape. But Senator Machaela Cavanaugh, a committee member and abortion rights advocate, said the exception is flawed:

“Rape under this bill is presumably the exception. However, there is no mechanism. What is the mechanism? Does your doctor have to ask if you were raped? Do you have to reveal that you were raped? Should they call the police? Need to fill out a police report? None of this has an answer. Or you just say I was raped and they check a box that says ‘rape,’” Cavanaugh said.

Senator Ben Hansen, an opponent of abortion and chairman of the committee, was pleased with the proposed bill.

“In my opinion it is a bill that will save many lives. Obviously I’m a pro-life politician and I never have a problem hiding it. And so I think we need the appropriate measures that some people were looking for, along with me, to make sure that we can protect women in the event of rape or incest or medical (emergency). Some of those things might need to be shredded a little deeper when they fall on the floor,” Hansen said.

Opponents of the bill have filed more than 40 amendments that are expected to be addressed in the House. Those opponents have pledged an all-out effort to block the bill, while admitting they probably don’t have the votes to do so.

In another action Wednesday, Gov. Jim Pillen approved a plan to borrow money through bonds to speed up highway construction.

Pillen’s approval of bonding on the streets marks a significant departure from the approach of his predecessor, Gov. Pete Ricketts. Ricketts opposed the tie-up, favoring a pay-as-you-go approach.

But speaking to the revenue committee on Wednesday, Pillen endorsed the idea. He contrasted the economic progress brought about by the interstate highway system, established under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, with Nebraska’s lack of progress on its internal highway system:

“I would say from my place and a lot of Nebraskas that we just say for 50 years the state of Nebraska has really dropped the ball when we talk about intrastate transportation in the state of Nebraska,” Pillen said.

Under the bill, 75 percent of the borrowed funds would be used to help complete the state’s highway system. This is a 600-mile system of four-lane expressways that the state promised to build in the 1980s, but is currently only 70 percent complete. Pillen recalled moving back with his wife to Columbus, where he started a pig farming business after graduating from Kansas State with a veterinary medicine degree.

“Personally, Suzanne and I moved back from Kansas State in 1983. And guess what? The four-lane expansion started that year in 1983, on the east end of Columbus, and we’re still not connected to Fremont on four lanes. And my math says that’s 40 years, so just think if that project had been tied up and invested, it would have been done in five years instead of 40,” he said.

Vicki Kramer, head of the Nebraska Department of Transportation or NDOT, said the proposal could save money. You said that over the past 10 years, construction costs have increased about 9.6% a year and have increased by 20% over the past year. She compared that to the interest on the bonds, which she estimated at six percent a year.

“Money taken from the State Highway Capital Improvement Fund to pay annual debt service is limited, to protect our asset preservation program and ensure that the level of service on our roads is not adversely affected. It also allows to NDOT to continue our fiscal responsibility by avoiding construction cost inflation by spending money today instead of waiting years to complete projects,” Kramer said.

The bill limits the state to interest costs of $35 million annually, on bonds up to $450 million.

No one testified against the proposal. Tim Hruza, representing Associated General Contractors, testified neutrally. He said his association had opposed previous bond proposals that had not included agreed funding to pay off the bonds.

“When we issue bonds or the state issues bonds to make future payments, we believe it is critical that you identify a dedicated funding source for how you will make those payments to avoid any situation where you are hitting your future annual budget to make payments for the work already done, and then lose sight of or lose track of existing program maintenance and upkeep,” said Hruza.

This year’s proposal states that the bonds would have a dedicated funding source. They would be supported by extending the current quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to roads, currently due in 2033, to 2042. The committee did not take immediate action on the proposal.

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