I have noticed in my short time here in the Legislature that it is not often that a bill advances to passage “clean”. By that I mean the bill doesn’t advance without some form of amendment. The amendment, as you can imagine, is intended to make the bill better. I have seen instances where the amendment becomes the bill. This past week we spent a little over an hour on a three-word amendment that not only made the bill to which it was attached better, but made our society better going forward.
Here in the Legislature, we deal in words. During debate we took a look at words and realized that they do matter. The old kid’s poem “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” isn’t true. Words hurt, and usually they are directed at the weaker members of our society, ethnic groups, nationalities and probably the weakest of all, those with physical or mental challenges which can’t be changed. LB 23 is a bill that was introduced to help bring in higher Medicaid payments to supplement pay rates for intermediate care facilities that house people with developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities. As happens, another senator saw that his bill wasn’t going to finish this year (LB 343) so he amended his bill into LB 23. LB 343 and now LB 23 asks that the term “mental retardation” be removed from state laws and replaced with the words “an intellectual disability”.
There are 44 other states that have eliminated the word “retardation” from their laws. The federal law was changed to reflect this in 2010. During debate on the amendment, several senators spoke of family members or friends that have children or others that are afflicted. They spoke of times where they heard the “r” word whispered or said directly to the person. One senator gave moving testimony of his childhood and remembered how his teacher treated him due to his speech defect and made him wear a dunce cap and then marched him down to the “retard” (his description, not mine) room. After a period of time he was allowed to come back to his “regular” room but the damage was done and obviously the experience has remained and will remain with him for a lifetime.
It is amazing how thick LB 343 is, 63 pages in all. It goes through state statute and gets rid of the words “mental retardation” wherever they appear. Earlier state statute used words such as imbecile, moron or even idiot, just to name a few. Those words are now gone from state law. Read one of our nation’s great authors, Mark Twain, and the “n” word is a regular word in his works especially Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Obviously, we don’t use that form of slang anymore either.
As I said when I began, the hour we debated the amendment for LB 23 was truly eye-opening and at times moving. Often, the gallery is full of students from all across the State of Nebraska seeing our Legislature in action. Those that were here for the above discussion, witnessed a “teaching moment” for their state senators as well. The bill containing the amendment unanimously passed on to Select File.
We began the week with debate on LB 577, the much publicized Medicaid expansion bill. After over 10 hours of debate, stretching over almost two full days, we accomplished–nothing. No vote, no decision, nothing. We did pretty well divide the body into pro or con (for or against) on the bill. So much of the debate centered on the cost of expansion and that was a major problem because that was a moving number. We were told that the Governor’s fiscal staff predicted a net cost to the state of $116 million over the next seven years. The legislative fiscal office put the figure closer to $57 million over the same time frame, both large numbers.
There are over 54,000 Nebraskans that would benefit from this bill and I understand this. There was however, an overriding feeling among senators on both sides of this proposal that sooner rather than later, the federal government would back away from their promise on this issue of 100% funding in the first three years of expansion extending to 2016 and graduate down to 90% by 2020. In a few years if the feds say no more money, then what? How do we tell our fellow Nebraskans then to go away, the well is dry?
Time grows short. We are well past 60 days completed of our 90 day session. The Speaker, as is his right, felt we were going nowhere and using up too much time on LB 577. He ended debate without a vote taken thus allowing the bill to reappear if the body can show there is a consensus one way of the other. I predict we will re-visit this measure again this session.
Senator Jerry Johnson