Kansas Considers Constitutional Amendment Over Abortion Rights

The Kansas Supreme Court's judicial center.

The Kansas Supreme Court's judicial center. Shutterstock

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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | California changes charter school rules … New York drops appeal over challenged ban on outside income for legislators … Atlantic City mayor admits to stealing money from charity.

Last week, the Kansas state legislature held two days of hearings to consider a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to state that abortion is not a right and no court can interpret the constitution to say it is. The move comes after the state Supreme Court in April declared abortion a constitutional right, striking down legislation that would have banned surgical abortions, which are common for abortions after 12 weeks. The Kansas constitution states that “The legislature shall provide for the protection of the rights of women, in acquiring and possessing property, real, personal and mixed, separate and apart from the husband; and shall also provide for their equal rights in the possession of their children.” The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that this provision extends to a “natural right of personal autonomy” for women to make their own choices about their bodies. A two-thirds majority in both the state House and Senate would need to agree to  add the constitutional amendment to the 2020 ballot, at which point voters will decide whether to pass it or not. Several special interest groups testified or sent statements to the legislature, with one group, Kansans for Life, offering to write the amendment. “We look forward to an open debate on this important issue,” said Jeanne Gawdun, a lobbyist for the group. Planned Parenthood advocates said that Kentucky legislators should understand the gravity of their decision. “It is vital that Kansas legislators realize that they will not be on the right side of history should they allow a vote that could strip rights from Kansas women,” said Rachel Sweet, a lobbyist for the organization. State Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat, said that the legislature should not be involved in court decisions. "We are inserting politics into the judicial decision-making process, and that's a very bad idea," he said. Republican Rep. Nick Hoheisel said that he is open to allowing residents to vote on the matter. “At the end of the day, it’s the people’s constitution. It’s the people’s right to decide this issue,” he said. Kansas is not the only state to attempt a constitutional amendment that would prevent courts from interpreting them in favor of a right to abortion; Alabama and West Virginia have amended their constitutions, and Louisiana voters will consider a similar referendum in 2020. [Wichita Eagle; Kansas City Star; Associated Press]

CHARTER SCHOOLS | California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law new rules governing charter schools, imposing more requirements for charters when they apply to school districts but expanding the appeal process if a charter is rejected. Under current law, school districts are required to approve applications for new charter schools if they met certain basic requirements; under the new rules, charters will now have to meet some of the standards imposed on regular public schools, such as requiring teachers to have certain credentials. The law also requires school districts to shut down charter schools that don’t meet academic performance standards, and allows them more authority in deciding whether charter schools should be approved, especially if a district is struggling financially and cannot afford to disperse funds over more schools. “To give districts that are facing serious financial challenges the opportunity to evaluate what is the impact of any new school, that’s groundbreaking and significant,” said Tony Thurmond, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said the law affirms that high-quality charter schools in the state are welcome. “It is a historic agreement. While this modifies the rules of the road for renewals and approvals of charter schools, we do believe this agreement does put to rest the idea of whether charter schools have a place in the landscape,” she said. The state currently has more than 1,300 charter schools that serve around 10% of the state’s 6.2 million public school students. [Associated Press; Sacramento Bee]

OUTSIDE INCOME | The New York Attorney General dropped the state’s appeal of a court decision from June that struck down a ban on outside income for state legislators and invalidated the next two scheduled pay raises for lawmakers. The salary increase and the ban on outside income had been enacted by a special committee in the legislature, which was set to evaluate whether legislators should receive their first raise in two decades. The committee decided to raise legislators’ salaries from $79,500 for the part-time job, to $130,000 by 2021 to make it a full time job; the move was meant to curb corruption. A complaint was originally filed by a group of Republican legislators. “This outright ban targets accountants, stock brokers, financial advisors, real estate brokers, pharmacists, attorneys, insurance agents, trustees, directors, and all others who have a fiduciary obligation to clients, customers, institutions or employers,” their complaint read. After the group won in court, the state appealed the decision, and was supported by groups like Common Cause New York. "Lawmakers deserve a raise, and New Yorkers deserve elected officials who work only for them," a statement from the group said. The appeal has now been dropped, meaning lawmakers can keep their jobs outside the legislature. [New York Law Journal; Courthouse News Service; Times-Union]

ATLANTIC CITY | The mayor of Atlantic City admitted last week to stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball team he founded. Frank Gilliam Jr. pled guilty in federal court, after acknowledging that this move might make him ineligible for public office. Giliam used the money for personal expenses from 2013 to 2018, and was elected as mayor in 2017 after serving on city council. Gilliam’s lawyer, Harry Rimm, stressed that Gilliam never took any public funds. “Mr. Gilliam, who is a lifelong resident of Atlantic City, has admitted his wrongful conduct, is accepting responsibility for his actions and is genuinely remorseful,” Rimm said. But an FBI Agent on the case, Gregory Ehrie, said it didn’t matter that it wasn’t public money. “When a scheme depletes (a) charity for children, it’s unconscionable. But when the fraud is perpetrated by someone the public trusts, it damages the community’s confidence in their public servants. This defendant betrayed the trust of his community and of people who wanted to improve the lives of children,” he said. Gilliam could face 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in January; he is currently out on bond. Atlantic City has long had a tumultuous political scene. In 2007, one-third of the nine-member city council was in prison or on house arrest and four of the last eight mayors had been arrested on corruption charges. [NJ.com; Associated Press]

WALKING MAYORS | Seventy-seven mayors from around Idaho have signed onto the “Mayor’s Walking Challenge,” an initiative led by the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation that has mayors compete for prize money. The mayors are challenged to average 10,000 steps a day for the month of October, with an award of $1,000 if they complete the program. They can spend that money on any community project that promotes physical activity or access to healthy foods. “Mayors are leaders in their communities, and when they advocate for something as important as being active, it sends a powerful message,” said Kendra Witt-Doyle, the executive director of the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation. Some mayors have added their own twist to the competition, including Ammon Mayor Sean Coletti, who has promised to donate $5 toward a new walking path for every resident who also gets to 10,000 steps a day for the month. “I thought it might not be as exciting for the community if it’s just the mayor walking around every day. If we can get more people involved, we can help more people get healthy and more people using our parks,” Coletti said. [Post-Register]

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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