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Nebraska Gov. Attacks Health Care Reform in the Name of Education

You might wonder what this year's federal health care overhaul has to do with schools in the state of Nebraska.

The state's governor, Dave Heineman, sees a connection.

Last week, the Republican governor took the unusual step of writing a pair of letters to education leaders in the state arguing that additional Medicaid costs coming to Nebraska as a result of the federal health care law would likely lead to reductions in the amount of money the state spends on schools. He urged them to support a repeal of the new federal health care law.

"If you sit silently by, I am going to assume that your lack of action is tacit support for increased Medicaid funding and the likely reduction in funding for education," Heineman wrote.

The letters were addressed to leaders of a teachers' union, the Nebraska State Education Association; the Nebraska Council of School Administrators; the Nebraska Association of School Boards; the president of the University of Nebraska; and the commissioner of the state's department of education. The state's board of regents and board of education were copied in on one of the letters.

Heineman calls the federal health care law "an unfunded Medicaid mandate," and he directed the education officials to a study commissioned by his administration that concluded that the health care law would expand Medicaid coverage of Nebraskans and cost the state between $526 million and $766 million over the next 10 years.

But the governor's claims have drawn a sharp response from U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, who represents Nebraska. The Democratic senator, who voted for the health care law, called the study "incomplete at best and intentionally misleading people at worst," adding: "It's more troubling that he's using that misinformation to intimidate groups in all aspects of our children's heath, safety, and education, pitting one against the other."

The Lincoln Journal Star echoed that sentiment. While acknowledging that higher Medicaid costs would mean fewer state resources in other areas, the paper said Heineman was pressuring education groups to support his partisan agenda. He might also be positioning himself for a potential race for the U.S. senate against Nelson, the paper argued. "In an ideal world, citizens could hope that their elected leaders would hew to higher standards of governance," it editorialized.

This week, the Nebraska state board of education responded to Heineman's request—by passing a resolution that made no mention of health care reform, but criticized unfunded mandates and called on state lawmakers to protect education funding.

"I applaud today's action by the state board of education, stating clearly and unequivocally that education is Nebraska's top funding priority," Heineman said afterward. "I am in complete agreement."

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