Nebraska educators reject governor's plea to oppose healthcare reform — at least directly

The Nebraska State Board of Education this month rebuffed a request from Gov. Dave Heineman (R) to support a direct repeal of the Democrats' new healthcare reform law.

Instead, Board members passed a much tamer resolution that registers their opposition to "unfunded mandates" without ever mentioning healthcare at all — a change that's being cheered by children's welfare advocates wary of efforts to pit children's health coverage against their education funding.

The episode began late last month, when Heineman sent a letter to state education leaders — including the members of the State Board — warning that the Medicaid expansion in the new healthcare reform law represents a threat to education funding, and therefore to education jobs. 

"The future of education is at stake," Heineman wrote. "Don't sit on the sidelines. I strongly urge you to support the repeal of the recently enacted federal health care law."

Heineman also touted the results of a new study — performed by Milliman, Inc. at the request of the governor's office — indicating that the Medicaid expansion would cost Nebraska between $526 million and $766 million over the next decade. 

"The results are potentially devastating to the state's budget," Heineman wrote. 

In response, State Board members last week considered a resolution calling for "the repeal of the unfunded Medicaid mandates contained in the [reform law]." The draft resolution also urged a replacement of the law "with alternatives that will not burden the states with unfunded mandates that threaten their fiscal stability."

It didn't fly. 

Instead, the State Board drastically reworked the language to exclude any references to Medicaid, the reform law or healthcare at all. The final version called on state officials "to oppose unfunded mandates and to protect the resources necessary for the provision of high quality education."  

It passed last Thursday by a vote of 7 to 0. 

Following the vote, Heineman issued a statement — all of 26 words long — applauding the board for "stating clearly and unequivocally that education is Nebraska’s top funding priority." 

Yet some children's welfare advocates say the victory is theirs. 

"We won in Nebraska," said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a Washington-based children's welfare group.

Last week, Lesley had written to Nebraska's State Board, asking how the Medicaid expansion — all of which will be paid by the federal government through 2016 — could pose an immediate threat to education coffers.  

"It is simply unsound for anyone to threaten the budget for education spending in 2011 based on estimated spending on healthcare in 2017 and beyond," he wrote.

The episode wasn't lost on Sen. Ben Nelson. The Nebraska Democrat issued a statement last week slamming Heineman for using "misinformation to intimidate groups involved in all aspects of our children’s health, safety and education, pitting one against the other."

"What I’m hearing from Nebraskans," Nelson said, "is they don’t want this kind of divisive politics to be played."