NCC grateful for legislative successes

As Tom Venzor looks back on the recently concluded 105th Legislature, he’s grateful lawmakers generally heeded the concerns of Nebraska’s Catholics. 
Despite cries of undue partisanship throughout the fractious 2017 and 2018 sessions, senators took significant steps to combat human trafficking and keep tax funds away from abortion providers, said Venzor, the second-year executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), which represents the public policy interests of Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses.
Venzor said he also was pleased with growing support for state tax credits for donations toward private- and parochial-school scholarships, though the bill stalled amid state budget crises and distortions of its intent.
Nebraska Catholics also can be grateful for the Legislature’s refusal to advance measures further degrading traditional marriage, family cohesion and public morality, he said.
“I think 2018 was a very successful year” for the conference, said Venzor, who succeeded longtime NCC staffer Greg Schleppenbach in September 2016. “With every bill that was a priority for us, if we favored it, it was likely to be successful in the legislative process, and if we opposed it, it generally was killed in the legislative process.”
 Only one of six bills formally opposed by the NCC — a measure to forbid denial of employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity — advanced to the full Legislature. LB173, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, failed to gain first-round approval. 
A successful two-year initiative to strengthen legal strictures against using public money to fund abortions gained statewide publicity through its inclusion in the Legislature’s adjustments to the state’s 2018-19 budget. 
After bitter debate, senators adopted an amendment, which says that any entity receiving federal Title X funds must be “objectively independent” from any organization that performs abortions or refers patients to abortion providers. Such funds are meant to support family planning and preventive health services, but not abortions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 
Backers of legalized abortion alleged the move would exclude women from vital health services – mainly those provided by Planned Parenthood – while other foes said the issue more properly should have been enacted as a separate bill.
That could be done in future sessions, Venzor said, but this year’s action was morally vital in light of evidence that Planned Parenthood’s Nebraska abortion services were indirectly benefiting from Title X funds.
“That’s not a Catholic issue,” he said. “That’s an issue for everybody to be proud about, that their government would keep tax dollars away from abortion services.”
Venzor said partisan-tinged battles over education funding contributed to the derailment of LB295, which was intended to expand the availability of scholarships to nonpublic K-12 schools through groups such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Omaha. 
The bill advanced to first-round debate but fell victim to a filibuster, which Venzor said featured a “gross mischaracterization” of the proposed tax credits as a back-door effort to enact government vouchers to attend nonpublic schools or authorize “charter schools” opposed by public-school educators.
But Venzor said some lawmakers who were opposed have switched sides as the NCC and other supporters helped them understand the bill. Though LB295 lacked the 33 votes needed to break the filibuster, “we certainly would have had enough support to pass the legislation,” he said.
The successes of this year’s bills against human trafficking, Venzor said, show that the Legislature remains capable of uniting across party and ideological lines on vital matters of human rights. 
LB1132, sponsored by a group of senators led by Lincoln’s Patty Pansing Brooks, continued a four-year series of broadly backed bills to battle human trafficking and aid its victims. Signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts April 18, the session’s final day, the legislation allows courts to expunge records of people who have served time for crimes if they can show they were coerced by traffickers at the time of the incident.
Venzor also praised senators for finding a way to reinstate state licensing and regulation of bring-your-own-drink “bottle clubs” after hearing testimony that some featured sexually charged dances by victims of sex traffickers.
After her initial bill on the subject (LB747) stalled in committee, Omaha Sen. Theresa Thibodeau persuaded senators to add bottle-club licensing to another liquor measure. 
LB1120, signed by Ricketts April 25, restores legal language that covered bottle clubs and was inadvertently repealed by lawmakers in 2004. 
“At the end of the day … the senators coalesced on quite a number of issues, and they got a lot of good work done for the state and the common good,” Venzor said.
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