IOWA CITY, Iowa — Republicans who control a majority of the nation’s statehouses are considering a wide range of abortion legislation that could test the government’s legal ability to restrict a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy.
The Mississippi House passed a bill Friday that would make the state the only one to ban all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In Missouri, lawmakers heard testimony earlier in the week on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.
The Ohio House is expected to consider bills, already passed in the Senate, that would prohibit the most common type of procedure used to end pregnancies after 13 weeks and require that fetal remains be buried or cremated.
Abortion is a perennial hot button issue in statehouses across the country. Republican-controlled states have passed hundreds of bills since 2011 restricting access to the procedure while Democratic-led states have taken steps in the other direction.
The early weeks of this year’s state legislative sessions have seen a flurry of activity around the issue. It comes as activists on both sides say they expect the U.S. Supreme Court to soon consider a question that remains unclear: How far can states go in restricting abortion in the interest of preserving and promoting fetal life?
The state bills debated since the start of the year “are all tests designed to see how far government power to legislate on behalf of a fetus can reach,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, who has been tracking legislation as the senior legal analyst for Rewire, a website that promotes views supporting abortion rights.
She said the outcome will determine whether states can legally ban abortion after a specific time period and outlaw specific medical procedures. Advocates for abortion rights say those strategies undermine the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that women have the right to terminate pregnancies until a fetus is viable.
In Utah, critics have warned that a pending bill to prevent doctors from performing abortions on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis is unconstitutional. But its co-sponsor, Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, said he is willing to defend the bill in court because its goal is to protect unborn children.
“There are times if the Supreme Court got it wrong, it is appropriate to push back,” said Bramble, an accountant from Provo.
The anti-abortion bills have drawn opposition from women who say they have made the excruciating choice to terminate a pregnancy, often after discovering serious fetal abnormalities.
“A 20-week abortion ban sounds OK, but if that gets passed, what’s next — 18 weeks, 15 weeks? At what point does it make abortion truly illegal?” said Robin Utz of St. Louis, 38, who submitted testimony this week against the Missouri bill. “It’s terrifying and it’s willfully ignorant.”
Utz recounted terminating her pregnancy in its 21st week in November 2016, after learning her daughter would be born with a fatal kidney disease if she survived birth. She said doctors told her that dilation and evacuation, the most common abortion procedure in the second trimester, was the safest way to terminate the pregnancy.
Undeterred by such stories, the National Right to Life Committee and its allies have been pushing for state laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and outlaw dilation and evacuation. Supporters of both measures argue that fetuses are capable of feeling pain after 20 weeks and call the procedure “dismemberment abortion.”
Several court challenges to both types of laws are underway, with federal appeals courts considering the “dismemberment abortion” bans approved last year in Texas and Arkansas.
Ingrid Duran, director of state legislation at the National Right to Life Committee, said the model state laws drafted by her group are aimed at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote who wrote the court’s 2007 opinion upholding a federal ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion.
She said the court could use similar reasoning to prohibit dilation and evacuation and noted it has never considered whether states have an interest in protecting fetuses from pain.
The shifted focus comes after the court dealt the anti-abortion movement a blow in 2016 by ruling that strict Texas regulations on abortion clinics and doctors were an undue burden on abortion access and unconstitutional.
Anti-abortion groups hope President Donald Trump will be able to nominate one or more justices to the Supreme Court following last year’s confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, potentially making the court more conservative on the issue for decades to come.
In the meantime, some of them are cautioning their allies not to go too far.
Duran said the proposed 15-week ban in Mississippi, which now goes to the state Senate, caught her by surprise. She noted that prior state laws banning abortion after 12 weeks or once a heartbeat was detected have been found unconstitutional.
A legislative committee in Tennessee amended a bill to remove language that would have outlawed abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around six weeks. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss, said he would not relent
“I will not stop fighting for the lives of babies until abortion is abolished in this state,” he said.
TWIN FALLS — A bill introduced in the state legislature last week could exacerbate crowding problems at the Twin Falls County Jail, the heads of the jail and probation department say.
SB 1238 would officially let counties require that defendants be supervised as a condition of their release while they await trial. The practice, while not technically authorized in Idaho statute, is common.
The bill would also cap the amount that counties are allowed to charge defendants for pretrial supervision at $30 a month — one-fifth of what Twin Falls County charges.
Twin Falls County’s rate of $150 a month, the highest in the state, was singled out by Sara Thomas, administrative director of the Idaho Courts, in a testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee last week. Thomas questioned the ethics of charging $5 a day, noting that Twin Falls’ rate for pretrial supervision is twice as high as the legal maximum that counties can charge people who are on misdemeanor probation.
“It is very surprising to think that someone who is released pretrial, who is not on probation and who is presumed innocent, is paying more than someone who has been convicted of a crime,” Thomas told the Times-News.
But local officials counter that Twin Falls’ high rate is necessary to cover the costs of its court compliance program — and they worry that without it, the county could see an increase in its jail population.
To compare Twin Falls’ rates to those of other counties without considering the context of the programs themselves is to take a “simplistic view of the situation,” said Kevin Sandau, director of probation services for Twin Falls County.
“The reality is there’s 44 counties and everyone does things a little differently,” Sandau said. “I know that not every county in the state puts [the same] kind of resources into the program.”
Including Twin Falls, 30 Idaho counties have some type of supervised pretrial release program in place. Programs vary from county to county in terms of structure, costs, and fees; many counties don’t charge defendants anything at all for pretrial supervision.
The Twin Falls court compliance program was established in 2003, with the goal of reducing severe crowding in the jail. After learning that many people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors were unable to afford bail, the county devised a program that would let those accused of low-level crimes pay $5 a day to await their trial outside of jail — a lower fee than the $25 a day inmates were charged to stay in jail. Those deemed indigent by court standards could have their supervision fees waived.
While the court compliance program was initially aimed at nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, the program now accepts people charged with both felonies and misdemeanors. According to the probation department’s most recent report, the majority of participants in the program — 67 percent — are now people accused of felonies.
Pretrial supervision is slightly less involved than supervision of a person on probation. Depending on the nature of the crime, it can include some combination of drug and alcohol testing, curfews, and address verification.
The total annual cost of the program is about $115,000, including materials, resources, training, office space and salaries for the county’s two pretrial supervision officers, Sandau said.
The court compliance program averaged 165 participants per month in 2017, and brought in approximately $70,000. The roughly $45,000 that wasn’t paid for by participants was covered by the county.
Sandau worries about the future of the program if the county has to shoulder more of those expenses under the potential new law.
“It’s certainly going to decrease revenue if they do it as it’s currently introduced. I don’t know how much that would hit us,” Sandau said. “It depends on the commissioners and whether they believe the program is worth additional funds.”
Complicating matters further is the issue of overcrowding in the Twin Falls County Jail, a problem officials attribute to a local rise in felonies and crowding in the state prison system. The 224-bed jail has held as many as 260 inmates at a time in recent months.
Capt. Doug Hughes, commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Security Services Division, said he believes the court compliance program was helpful in alleviating the jail’s overcrowding problem in 2003. But since then, the county has seen an increase in the number of defendants entering the criminal justice system who are not eligible for the program, he said.
“I think the program worked out pretty good in the beginning,” Hughes said. “But I think the population is such now that a lot of people aren’t meeting the criteria.”
Still, without the program in its current form, the jail could be housing as many as 165 additional inmates per day.
“Obviously, the ones that do meet the criteria and are going out on court compliance is lessening the number of beds that I have filled every day,” Hughes said. “From my end, the people that are in the program already, or the potential people that could go in that program, could greatly affect the jail population.”
In making his case for funding the court compliance program, Sandau compared the cost of housing additional inmates in the county jail to the cost of the supervised pretrial release program.
“We know how expensive it is to run a jail,” Sandau said. “It’s much more than just the two of us out there watching these people in the community.”
HAILEY — Blaine County has a reputation for being home to wealthy Sun Valley and schools with specialty programs many Idaho communities only dream of affording.
But the school district will soon ask for money to help sustain programs state funding doesn’t cover like world languages for middle schoolers, engineering technology teachers in elementary schools, art, and music ensembles such as choir, band and string orchestra.
During the March election, the Blaine County School District will bring a brand new supplemental levy request to voters to help pay for student instruction. In exchange, it will ask for less money for school building and maintenance projects.
“Our community obviously expects incredible services for their kids, and they expect small class sizes,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said.
It’s not unusual for school districts to seek supplemental levies. Across Idaho, 93 of 115 districts have one already.
“This is not unique to Blaine County,” Holmes said. “We’re joining a big club here.”
The Blaine County district has used a supplemental levy in the past, but not in more than a decade.
The vast majority of school districts use their supplemental levy to pay for basic operational expenses like keeping the lights on and replacing outdated textbooks instead of what might be seen as specialty offerings.
For the Twin Falls School District, the supplemental levy is often referred to as a “survival levy” and makes up nearly 10 percent of the general fund budget. District leaders say it’s not for specific niche programs.
“It’s not the frosting we’re trying to pay for,” Superintendent Brady Dickinson said.
In the Blaine County School District, though, some of the largest levy priorities are small class sizes and continuing programs that set the district apart from most other Idaho schools.
On Blaine County ballots during the March 13 election, the measure will require a simple majority to pass. If approved, it would reduce the existing plant facilities levy from nearly $6 million annually to $2.99 million annually for the next two years. It would also add a two-year supplemental levy for $2.99 million annually.
Overall, property taxes collected by the district would remain the same.
The new supplemental levy would help maintain offerings that exceed state requirements, including small class sizes, preschool, all-day kindergarten, athletics, art, drama, choir, band, orchestra, career technical education and world languages. It would also provide a small salary increase to help attract and retain employees, and fund strategic plan objectives such as outdoor education for middle school students.
The current 10-year plant facilities levy was passed in 2009, and at the time, the school district anticipated the need for a new elementary school. But enrollment didn’t grow as quickly as expected. The school district’s class size policy calls for 20 children in kindergarten through second grades, 25 children in third through fifth grades, and 30 children in middle and high school.
“We are blessed with small class sizes so we can work individually with students and help them out,” said Glenn Lindsley, a math teacher at Wood River High School in Hailey. It’s a luxury most other school districts don’t get.
Lindsley typically has about 20 students in each of his classes.
“Everywhere else I’ve ever taught, it’s been 30,” he said.
Lindsley has been an educator for 35 years, 12 of them in Blaine County. Before that, he taught in the Seattle area, Ohio and New York.
The school district has already made budget cuts. It started trimming its expenses a few years ago and over a two-year period, it cut $2.5 million from its general fund. Classroom teachers and staff have felt the effects, but not necessarily students, Holmes said.
“If the ballot measure doesn’t pass, kids will start to see it,” she said.
All Idaho school districts used to receive part of their money from local property tax revenue. But in 2006, state legislators changed the system to base funding on state income and sales taxes instead.
However, four resort-area districts — including Blaine County — collected more in property tax revenue than what they’d receive under the revised state system. As a result, they were exempted and a budget stabilization levy was created without voter approval.
The Blaine County district continues to receive property tax revenues based on 2006 valuations.
The general fund is 60 percent local dollars. “Our revenues have been relatively flat since 2007 when that stabilization levy went into place,” Holmes said.
Initially, the school district didn’t need all of the revenue it received through the budget stabilization levy. Unspent money was kept in reserves.
But the district has seen enrollment growth, inflation and rising expenses. “For a while,” Holmes said, “the district was spending some of those reserves to make ends meet.”
The school district hasn’t laid off teachers, she said. But it has cut job positions from its administrative office, including in finance, buildings and grounds, and technology. And there’s no longer an assistant superintendent.
“We’ve reduced a lot in those areas,” Holmes said.
The school district has also cut department and school budgets, meaning there’s less money for materials and supplies. It cut back on teacher training and tightened school bus routes. It used to allow community groups to use school buildings for free, but now charges a fee.
The school district has seen large cost increases for employee salaries and benefits, such as health insurance. Much of that is employees moving up the salary schedule as they gain education and years of experience.
“We’re looking at $1 million plus (each year) just to keep up with that alone,” Holmes said.
Jamie Harding, librarian at Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum has been a teacher there for her entire 24-year career. Quite a few employees have been with the school district for 20 years or more, she said.
“While obviously that costs more, I think there’s a real value in teachers that dedicate their careers and stay in one district,” she said. Highly educated and experienced teachers benefit students in classrooms, she added.
Three years ago, the school district stopped hiring additional staff and reallocated employees among schools to meet needs.
“We started moving the teachers around to be where the kids were,” Holmes said, adding it’s something commonplace in many other school districts. “It’s not a reduction, but a change in culture.”
In the meantime, Blaine County’s student numbers are increasing 1 to 1.5 percent each year, she said. “Our enrollment has been slowly ticking up.”
If the ballot measure doesn’t pass in March, it could lead to tough decisions for schools — and possibly, sacrificing some programs.
“Buildings will have to make decisions,” Holmes said, “about which classes to no longer offer.”