US states take control of abortion debate with funding focus
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Though the Insight Women’s Center sits at the epicenter of a reinvigorated battle in the nation’s culture wars, the only hint of its faith-based mission to dissuade people from getting abortions is the jazzy, piano rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” playing in a waiting room.
The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature is considering allocating millions of dollars in state funds to similar anti-abortion centers that persuade people to bring their pregnancies to term by offering free pregnancy tests and sonograms, as well as counseling and parenting classes taught by volunteers. They’re also considering offering millions more in income tax credits for donors supporting what they call “crisis pregnancy centers.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year and gave control of abortion policy to the states, it led to bans and restrictions in some states, and executive orders and laws protecting access in others. Those debates continue, but perhaps less noticed is how this change refueled the renewed battle over taxpayer money.
Supporters say the effort shows abortion opponents are addressing families’ social and financial needs. But critics say the amount of new funding proposed for organizations like Insight — either in direct funding or tax credits for their donors — fall far short of what’s necessary to improve people’s access to health care and address ongoing poverty.
“You funnel money through a short-term solution that makes it appear as though you are doing something,” said Alesha Doan, a University of Kansas associate professor who has studied and written books about abortion politics.
Increasingly, liberal cities and states are funding access to abortion, including telemedicine, which has seen a notable rise with more than half of U.S. abortions now done with pills rather than surgery. Meanwhile, states with GOP legislatures and governors are looking to put more taxpayer money into organizations that talk people out of ending their pregnancies.
Legislative committees held hearings Thursday on proposals for a 70% income tax credit to donors who support anti-abortion centers, with a cap of $10 million in total credits. A Senate committee might vote this week.
It’s similar to a longstanding Missouri law that provides income tax credits to donors supporting anti-abortion centers. Arizona has such a law, and Mississippi’s Republican House speaker is trying to expand a cap on tax credits to $10 million from the $3.5 million authorized last year.
Arkansas and Oklahoma are considering adding similar tax credits, according to the National Right to Life Committee.
In Missouri, donors to anti-abortion centers have received $15 million in total state tax credits over the past five years, and one state analysis estimates the centers served about 43,000 people last year.
Abortion opponents have operated centers like Insight for decades, and the practice of conservative-led states offering financial aid to them predates Dobbs — the decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade.
On the abortion-rights side, Oregon lawmakers last year created a $15 million abortion-access fund, with the first $1 million going to a nonprofit that covers the costs of patients’ travel and procedures. California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington have also allocated or are considering offering public funding for abortions or related services.
In New Mexico last year, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged $10 million in state funds to the construction of a new abortion clinic.
Morgan Hopkins, president of the abortion-rights advocacy group All(asterisk) Above All praised the funding. “Budgets are a reflection of our values,” she said.
Kansas already provides grants to programs that provide prenatal care, and encourage people to carry their pregnancies to term. But it spends less than $339,000 in a state budget of $24 billion on the program — and made only two grants totaling less than $74,000 to anti-abortion centers.
Now, some abortion opponents talk about emulating Missouri’s more than $8 million annual funding, plus the income tax credits.
Abortion rights supporters are frustrated that the push for such support is coming so soon after an Aug. 2 statewide vote that decisively rejected a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have allowed legislators to greatly restrict or ban abortion.
“I have general concerns that we’re not respecting what was the very clear will of voters,” said state Sen. Ethan Corson, a Kansas City-area Democrat who serves on the Senate tax committee.
Abortion rights advocates say the centers lure patients away from abortion clinics with free services, give them inaccurate medical information and counseling from people who are not trained therapists. Some see funding them as a political gesture designed to make abortion bans look less harsh.
Abortion opponents argue that centers like Insight offer patients a wide range of prenatal and post-birth classes, in addition to other help. They also argue that boosting funding for free services after the August vote is a promise not to abandon parents and families.
In Lawrence, where the nearest abortion clinic is a 40-minute drive away, 28-year-old Korbe Bohac is still visiting the Insight center nearly 8 months after her son Winston was born. She told legislators the classes and counseling make her a better, more confident parent — and helped preserve her mental health. She called it “a safety net.”
The Insight center, which is only a few miles from the University of Kansas, has two sonogram nurses, and a doctor and radiologist sometimes volunteer their time. But services depend mostly on about 50 volunteers. The $340,000 annual budget is mostly supplied by private donations, but the organization received a community development grant in 2014 to launch parent education programs.
Center staff said that although they do not refer clients to abortion providers, they discuss abortion as an option. They said some patients who met with them went on to have abortions, though this is not possible to verify given patients’ privacy protocols.
Insight has two separate waiting rooms — one for its educational programs and one for medical services. Executive director Bridgit Smith said one reason is that it keeps pregnant patients from being influenced by seeing babies and toddlers.
Smith said she believes the proposed tax credit would increase donations, helping Insight start a maternity home for people without shelter.
“We’re trying to build strong individuals and strong families. And isn’t that what we all want?” Smith said. “Even for the woman that doesn’t choose to parent, we still want her to be strong and healthy after the decision.”
Is DeSantis darkening Florida’s sunny open-records laws?
Florida has long been known for sunshine — not only the warm rays that brighten its beaches but also the light of public scrutiny afforded by some of the nation’s strongest meetings and records laws.
Although years of rollbacks have gradually clouded the impact, advocates are ringing alarms that this year presents the greatest threat to transparency yet in the state that coined the name “Sunshine Law” for its open-government rules.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, weighing a presidential bid, is pursuing a home-state agenda that could make it harder for people to learn what public officials are doing or to speak out against them. In an unprecedented move for the Sunshine State, DeSantis has claimed an executive right to keep key government records secret. He’s also seeking to weaken a nearly 60-year-old national legal precedent protecting journalists and others who publish critical comments about public figures.
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature appears eager to carry out his vision. As their annual session began last week, lawmakers filed dozens of bills that would add to the state’s lengthy list of open-government exceptions.
“The state of sunshine is in peril,” warned Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, who has been tracking the state’s public access laws for three decades.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid following the session, has thrilled conservative activists nationwide by leaning into fights against the GOP’s perceived political adversaries: public health officials, so-called “woke” leaders in business and public education — and the press.
Former President Donald Trump, a potential rival and fellow Floridian, also is well-known for lambasting the press — describing the U.S. media as “the enemy of the people.” Such criticism often plays well within the modern-day Republican Party, where mainstream media are perceived to side with the interests of Democrats and liberals.
But it runs contrary to Florida’s historic reputation as a place where reporters — and curious members of the public — can unearth government data and documents that shed light on the decisions made by elected officials.
Florida’s law making government records open to public inspection dates to 1909, long before similar measures emerged in many other states. It added a Sunshine Law requiring public meetings in 1967. Then, in 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings. A decade later, as lawmakers were adding exemptions, voters approved another a constitutional amendment making it harder for legislators to approve future exceptions.
Florida newspapers launched the first “Sunshine Sunday” in 2002 to highlight the importance of public access to government information. That one-day event has since grown to an annual Sunshine Week observed nationally by media and First Amendment advocates.
As this year’s Sunshine Week began Sunday, lawmakers in state capitols were pursuing a mixture of proposals — some excluding more government records from public inspection; others increasing the ability of people to keep an eye on their government. But nowhere, perhaps, have Sunshine Week issues garnered as much attention as in Florida — due largely to DeSantis’ powerful platform to voice his complaints about the media.
Last month, DeSantis hosted a livestreamed “panel discussion on defamation” while attempting to build support for his plan to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media or people who post things on the internet about public officials and employees.
“You smear somebody, it’s false, and you didn’t do your homework, you’re going to have to be held accountable for that,” DeSantis said while concluding the event. “Hopefully, you’ll see more and more of that across the country.”
DeSantis is seeking to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless proven that they were published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true. Florida legislation to carry out DeSantis’ plan would make it unnecessary to prove “actual malice” when the allegedly defamatory statements don’t relate to the reason why someone is a public figure.
Other provisions of the legislation would presume anonymous statements in news stories are false for the purposes defamation lawsuits and would treat accusations of racial, sexual or gender discrimination as intrinsically defamatory.
Petersen said such provisions appear to be a first nationally and could have a freezing effect on free speech.
But Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who is sponsoring the bill, said it is “a sincere attempt to try and fix the problems that exist in this type of law.”
“This bill would make it easier for someone who’s actually been harmed by a defamatory statement to pursue justice in Florida courts,” Andrade said.
The defamation legislation is just one of several DeSantis administration policies prompting concern among media organizations.
Earlier this year, a Florida trial judge upheld DeSantis’ assertion of “executive privilege” in refusing to turn over information requested under the state’s public-records law about his screening of potential state Supreme Court nominees. That case is being watched by national media organizations as it’s being appealed.
The Florida Constitution contains no specific mention of “executive privilege.” Neither does the U.S. Constitution, though courts have upheld the president’s prerogative to withhold documents to protect the confidentiality of advice received in the decision-making process. Governors in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington also have previously asserted the privilege.
Another DeSantis administration policy has slowed access to some public records. Television station WKMG reported last month that public records requests to some state agencies were being routed for review to the governor’s office, sometimes delaying their release by weeks or months.
Public protests at the Capitol also have been limited. Under a DeSantis administration rule that took effect March 1, demonstrations at the Capitol Complex are only permitted outdoors. Requests to use space in the Capitol Complex must come from state agencies, the Legislature or judiciary, must be “consistent with the agency’s official purpose” and cannot include displays with “gratuitous violence or gore” that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community.”
Florida’s open-government reputation already was fading before DeSantis took office in 2019, but that trend has gained steam. In his first year, lawmakers expanded the list of personal details forbidden to be disclosed about various public officials. Last year, DeSantis signed a law shielding information about candidates for college and university presidencies.
This year, roughly five-dozen bills already have been filed proposing more open-government exemptions, Petersen said. Some of those would prohibit the agency that provides security for DeSantis from disclosing the governor’s travel arrangements — even after the fact.
Though DeSantis said he doesn’t support it, another bill filed this year would require bloggers to file periodic reports with the state if they are paid for posts about the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet members or legislative officials.
The cumulative effect is that “open government and public records laws are very much under the gun right now,” said Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that advocates for the public’s right to open government.
“Every year, we’re seeing the vast sweep of the original intention chiseled away – sometimes bit by bit, other times chuck by chuck,” Block said, “and it’s definitely not the way it used to be.”
Missouri debates ban on LGBTQ education for all grades
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers argued Wednesday over a bill that would ban most LGBTQ education subjects for all grades in the state’s public schools.
The proposal is modeled after a Florida education law passed last year, touted by supporters as protecting “parent’s rights” and dubbed by opponents as a “ Don’t Say Gay ” law.
The Missouri bill debated in a state House committee hearing would ban K-12 public school staff from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Florida law only prohibits teaching those subjects from kindergarten through third grade, although any lessons on those topics for students of any grade are also banned if they are not age-appropriate.
“Exposure to such topics is inappropriate for children, creating confusion which may then cause doubt in their identities,” said Rep. Ann Kelley, a former teacher and the Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill. “It is not the place of the school to indoctrinate our children by exposing them to gender and sexual identity curriculums and courses.”
Kelley said her bill will need to be amended so it does not limit teaching for Advanced Placement courses.
In response to a question from a committee member, Kelley said she assumes that under her bill, educators would be banned from explaining the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage.
“It seems like the things that you want to prohibit are targeted to one particular group that you find disfavorable,” Republican Rep. Phil Christofanelli told Kelley.
Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey, a former teacher who is openly gay, asked Kelley if him “being gay in the classroom” and not hiding that from students would be limited under her bill.
“Did you ever inform your students on your beliefs?” Kelley asked Mackey.
“They did know I was gay,” Mackey said. “They would see my wedding ring and they would ask about it, and I would say I have a husband.”
A committee vote on the bill was not scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.
The White House, Disney, and LGBTQ advocates criticized the passage of the Florida bill last year. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bill was a victory for parents and would prevent “indoctrination.”
Secretary Blinken to Honor International Women of Courage Awardees at White House Ceremony
WASHINGTON, DC – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden will honor a group of extraordinary women at the 17th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Ceremony on Wednesday, March 8, at 2:00 p.m. The ceremony will take place at the White House for the first time in the award’s history.
The annual IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Since 2007, the Department of State has recognized more than 180 women from more than 80 countries.
The ceremony will be pooled press and streamed live on whitehouse.gov/live and state.gov.
Following the IWOC ceremony, the awardees will participate in an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, where they will meet with American counterparts in various cities throughout the country.
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