LINCOLN — One state senator wants to help balance the state budget by using chemicals.

As lawmakers wrestle with a $673 million budget shortfall, Sen. Jim Jensen of Omaha is proposing that all Nebraska cities and towns with more than 1,000 residents be required to fluoridate their water.

The hope is that fluoridating water in more cities will reduce tooth decay and thus trim dental costs paid annually by Medicaid, the state’s health-insurance program for the poor and disabled

“Without a doubt, across the nation as well as here in Nebraska, there has been a tremendous lessening of the number of cavities that children have when they use fluoride,” Jensen said. “It works.”

Fluoride, which is known to stop tooth decay, has been added to water in thousands of U.S. cities since the 1950s.

More than 170 million people, or 62 percent of the nation’s population, drink water with fluoride.

Jensen, chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said that for every dollar spent to fluoridate water, the state saves an estimated $50 in Medicaid costs.

The state spent $25 million in Medicaid funds last year on dental services.

Jensen said it costs 20 cents to 50 cents a year to add fluoride to a city’s water supply, depending on the size of the system.

Jensen’s bill (LB473) would even require cities where voters have rejected water fluoridation to treat their water.

According to state records, 66 cities and villages, including Grand Island, Beatrice, Hastings, Scottsbluff and Norfolk, do not fluoridate their water.

Several studies have said that children who drink water with fluoride have 20 percent to 40 percent fewer cavities. Adults who drink fluoridated water have 15 percent to 35 percent fewer cavities.

In communities that once fluoridated and have since stopped, tooth decay has gone up, studies show.

The Environmental Protection Agency, American Dental Association and most public-health agencies back fluoridation as the best way to prevent cavities in the teeth of growing children.

But fluoride has its detractors.

Foes of fluoridation have long resented what they call the mass medication of the public by the government. They are now armed with studies that say fluoride is not that effective and could be a health threat if ingested long enough.

Some studies have suggested that fluoride can cause cancer or make bones brittle.

Critics say hydrofluosilicic acid, the type of fluoride commonly added to water, is harvested from smokestack scrubbers at plants that produce phosphate fertilizer and contain traces of mercury, lead and arsenic.

The arguments have left many officials searching through piles of conflicting studies.

In the 1950s, some people went as far as to suggest that fluoridation was a Communist plot to turn the United States into a nation of “zombies.”

Meanwhile, a group of York residents has circulated petitions against efforts to fluoridate York’s drinking water. The York City Council voted last summer to fluoridate the city’s water.

Voters [in] several communities, including Grand Island and Norfolk, have rejected adding fluoride to their water supplies.

“The question is ‘Why?’ ” said Rev. Arin Hess of Norfolk, who testified against the measure. “Are we 100 percent sure that fluoride is safe?”