TOPEKA — Emboldened conservatives in the Kansas Legislature didn’t wait long to push plans to restrict abortion.
They’re also pitching a bill to repeal a law allowing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
And the session is only in its third day.
Republican lawmakers expect this to be a banner year for legislation on abortion, immigration, gun rights and other top conservative causes. The GOP holds a commanding majority in the Legislature and a close ally — Republican Sam Brownback — sits in the governor’s mansion for the first time.
It’s a big change from the last eight years, when Democratic governors Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson routinely blocked many conservative bills.
On the session’s first day, Rep. Steve Huebert introduced legislation to close what he said is a glaring loophole in the state’s late-term abortion ban.
Currently, abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy are illegal unless a physician certifies that the pregnancy poses a threat to life or “bodily function.” The courts have interpreted bodily function to include mental health. Abortion opponents have long suspected abortion providers of using bogus mental health diagnoses to perform otherwise illegal abortions.
“The mental-health exception was used in ways that were not intended and not appropriate,” said Huebert, a Valley Center Republican.
No late-term abortions have been reported to the state since the 2009 slaying of George Tiller, a Wichita abortion provider whose clinic specialized in the procedure.
The Legislature has better things to do than debate abortion, said Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. He said lawmakers should leave questions of mental health and abortion to a woman and her physician.
“It’s sad, given the half a billion-dollar shortfall in the budget, given the economy, that this is one of the first bills introduced,” Brownlie said. “This is going to be a difficult year in terms of women’s reproductive rights.”
Indeed, Huebert’s proposal is only the first of several abortion bills expected this year. One would require greater information from doctors signing off on late-term abortions. Another would cite fetal pain as a reason to outlaw all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
And some are even talking about legislation designed to trigger a lawsuit in the hopes of overturning the historic Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“I’m focused on what we can do in Kansas to save the maximum number of babies,” said Rep. Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and the author of several vetoed abortion bills.
But the state’s leading anti-abortion group, Kansans for Life, is urging lawmakers to be cautious.
Executive Director Mary Kay Culp said lawmakers should start by passing the bills vetoed by Sebelius and Parkinson. Legislation that goes further by banning most abortions, for example, might backfire, she warned.
“If you overreach too quickly you invite mischaracterization and backlash,” Culp said. “It’s smarter in the long run to take a more measured approach. You have to remember the politics.”
Debates over abortion helped drive a wedge between the Kansas GOP’s moderates and conservatives, creating a rift years ago that lingers.
Brownback, while acknowledging his anti-abortion record, avoids talking much about the issue. The economy and the state budget, he has said, are his top priorities.
Meanwhile, many conservatives also would like Kansas to adopt tough reforms cracking down on illegal immigration. Their first goal is to repeal a law providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from a Kansas high school. The law was signed by Sebelius in 2004.
Efforts to repeal the law have failed in the past, but critics like their chances this year, thanks to the influx of new conservative lawmakers.
“The dynamics have changed since the election,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, a Eudora Republican and one of the sponsors of the immigration bill. “Folks elected us to do a job. This sends a message: ‘We heard you.’ ”