District 12 race focuses on health care, taxes, education

The race to represent Nebraska’s Legislative District 12 (including Ralston, and parts of Millard and southwest Omaha) pits an incumbent against a former two-term incumbent.
Sen. Merv Riepe is defending his seat against Steve Lathrop, who hopes to regain the seat after sitting out nearly four years due to term limits.
Riepe, a Republican and retired health care administrator, and Lathrop, an attorney and a Democrat, share a commitment to public service as a product of their faith and upbringing.
Lathrop, a Catholic, is a member of St. Gerald Parish in Ralston, and Riepe, a Christian, is a member of Faith Westwood Church in Omaha.
Both candidates are concerned about issues of human dignity, such as affordable health care, as well as concern for working families’ need for property tax relief while providing adequate funding for high-quality education.
On life issues, both oppose abortion. Lathrop opposes capital punishment while Riepe supports it for the most heinous crimes.
Reflecting the importance of health care in maintaining human dignity, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) policy document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (FCFC) says “affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right.” 
“Health care coverage remains an urgent national priority,” the bishops say. (FCFC, no. 80).
How this translates into specific public policies, however, is not always clear. For example, the bishops have supported measures to strengthen Medicaid (FCFC, no. 80), but also affirm that such matters pertain to well-informed prudential judgement (FCFC, no. 33).
A former CEO of Bergan Mercy Medical Center and manager of a physician’s group at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, both in Omaha, Riepe chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. He places a high priority on affordable health care for vulnerable people but opposes Medicaid expansion as the answer because of budget constraints.
Earlier this year, he introduced the Direct Primary Care Pilot Program Act (LB1119). The bill, signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts April 13, is designed to improve the quality of health care for state employees and reduce costs.
It gives state employees a health plan option that pays a flat, monthly fee to health care providers for routine services and offers high-deductible coverage for hospitalizations and other large expenses.
Lathrop told the Catholic Voice that health care is high on his list of important issues as well.
“In my district, what I’m hearing people talk about is access to health care,” Lathrop said. “They’re working class people and the working poor and are terrified of the prospect of not having health care coverage.”
Lathrop favors Medicaid expansion. He voted for it three times. 
“This is incredibly important in my district,” he said. 
After failing to pass in the Legislature, the issue will be on the general ballot in November.
Riepe has opposed Medicaid expansion because of funding concerns. “But, if that is the will of the voters, I will be supportive of implementing it,” he said.
Both candidates said property taxes and the budget are important issues facing the next Legislature.
“Many District 12 voters are on fixed incomes or have had no wage increase in eight to 10 years, beyond maybe 2 percent,” Riepe said in an interview with the Catholic Voice. “They’re feeling the pinch of rising expenses.”
He was one of 13 senators who unsuccessfully sought a special legislative session this year to seek a solution to property taxes that would consider education costs and alternative sources of funding for education.
Riepe, who considers himself a “budget hawk,” said, “We need to start with all options on the table and look at spending throughout all state departments, but we have to balance the books.”
“On education, we have to look at the funding formula,” Riepe said, “and with property taxes, we have to make sure that with the formula we don’t penalize schools that are performing well.”
“The most important issues for the state right now are budget issues,” Lathrop said. The reserve fund, which stood at $800 million in 2014 and has been used to make up for revenue shortfalls, now stands at less than $300 million, he said.
State aid to education also has been reduced, Lathrop said. “Our public schools are suffering as a result of those decisions.”
That’s why he would make K-12 education funding a top priority, he said.
The Catholic Church stands as one of the primary defenders of the unborn through its opposition to abortion (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2271).
And, the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), the public policy arm of the three Nebraska bishops, works closely with state lawmakers to advance bills that limit abortion’s reach and impact. 
One such effort supported by the NCC and passed in this year’s state budget requires clinics receiving federal Title X funds to be physically, financially and legally independent from clinics providing or referring for abortion services.
Both District 12 candidates said they favor keeping federal Title X funds away from abortion providers. Riepe said the restriction should be put into state law to avoid having to revisit the issue every budget cycle.
“I’m very supportive of that because it’s against federal and state law for federal or state monies to be used for abortion,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of support for that and I think we can get that done.”
Lathrop said his approach to life issues has included supporting a prenatal care bill that passed in 2012 to fund services for low-income, pregnant women, including undocumented women, to help ensure proper care for the unborn. In 2008, he also led successful efforts to establish limits on embryonic stem-cell research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
“I consider recognizing the dignity of every life as central to my faith,” Lathrop said.
“As a state senator for eight years, I worked very closely with the Nebraska Catholic Conference on a variety of issues, including pro-life bills that deal with abortion, and funding for treatment of people with developmental disabilities,” he said.
Lathrop also led an investigative committee that looked into rehabilitative and mental health services, plus overcrowding in the state prison system. He also led an investigative committee to look into abuse and neglect of clients and to provide oversight of conditions for people with developmental disabilities at the Beatrice State Developmental Center.
Riepe said he is a pro-life senator who believes in protecting the unborn and opposes euthanasia. He believes the death penalty should be reserved for people who have committed only the most heinous crimes.
“I want law enforcement to have that tool,” he said.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have long supported humane treatment of all immigrants to this country, including those who are undocumented, and those brought here as children.
Riepe said he favors legal immigration. But he does not support providing government benefits to illegal immigrants, including young people brought to the United States as children and protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
“I am not in favor of deporting the ‘Dreamers’ that are here, but I want to keep pressure on to get something done to resolve the issue,” Riepe said. “We need to focus on a policy, and that policy probably has to come down from the federal level.”
Lathrop said he generally opposes government benefits to illegal immigrants, with the exception of prenatal care.
He also supports the Legislature’s past actions granting some benefits to young people protected by DACA, such as professional or occupational certification or licensing. “It allows them to make a living in the field in which they’ve been educated and trained,” he said.
Lathrop said his Catholic faith and his years in Catholic education (Holy Name School and then-Archbishop Rummel High School, both in Omaha) formed his philosophy of public service.
“The talents we have are a gift from our Creator to be used to make the world a better place,” he said. “It’s a way I can give back to my community.”
“When I was elected, I took an oath to uphold the constitution of Nebraska and the United States,” Lathrop said. “Although faith informs my views, I also can’t agree to pass laws that are unconstitutional.”
Riepe, who grew up in a small farming community and a fundamentalist church, said he learned “servant leadership” from the Sisters of Mercy while working at Bergan Mercy Hospital, and he takes seriously Jesus’ admonition, ‘Whatever you do unto others, you do unto me.’
“As culturally divided as we are in this country, we need a unifying force, and through faith in Jesus Christ, we could come together and be less harsh with each other,” he said.
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