New year means new laws in Kansas and Missouri

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Viewers on both sides of the state line are waking up to new laws that are taking effect in 2019, and there will be more to come after the start of the legislation session later this month.

Minimum wages will get a boost

At least 19 states will increase their minimum wages on or around New Year's Day, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The group's executive director, Christine Owens, said the increases come after years of frustration by hard-working, lower-income Americans.

"Working people are struggling to pay their bills, but they see that it's the corporations and the wealthy CEOs who are getting the tax breaks. It's just not right," Owens said.

"The American people believe in the value of work -- and that workers deserve to be valued. That's why there's such strong support for raising the minimum wage."

Minimum wage workers from Maine to Missouri to Arizona will see bumps in their paychecks. But even as some states increase their minimum wages, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009.

Kansas judge rules telemedicine abortions can continue

A judge ruled Monday that Kansas cannot stop telemedicine abortions, thwarting the latest attempt by state lawmakers to prevent doctors from providing pregnancy-ending pills to women they see by remote video conferences.

District Judge Franklin Theis ruled that a law barring telemedicine abortions and set to take effect in January has no legal force. During an earlier hearing, Theis derided the law as an "air ball" because of how lawmakers wrote it.

That law was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of Trust Women Wichita, which operates a clinic that performs abortions and provides other health care services.

Theis also ruled that other, older parts of the state's abortion laws that could ban telemedicine abortions are on hold indefinitely because of a separate lawsuit challenging them that's still pending.

The Wichita clinic began offering telemedicine abortions in October because its doctors live outside Kansas and could be on site only two days a week. It also hopes to provide the pills to women in rural areas and have them confer by teleconference with doctors.

The center argues that banning telemedicine abortions violates the state constitution by placing an undue burden on women seeking abortions and singling out abortion for special treatment when state policies intend to encourage telemedicine. Kansas has no clinics that provide abortions outside Wichita and the Kansas City area.

"That procedure by telemedicine is going to be legal after midnight (Monday), and the clinic will continue to offer it," said Bob Eye, one of the attorneys for Trust Women. "This is a good outcome."

The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, influential with the Republican-controlled Legislature, contends telemedicine abortions are dangerous. But a study of abortions in California, published in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' journal in 2015, said less than one-third of 1 percent of medication abortions resulted in major complications.

Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, called Theis' ruling "infuriating."

"This judge has a long history of taking laws designed by the Legislature to protect unborn babies and women and turning them into laws that instead protect the abortion industry," Culp said.

Seventeen other states have telemedicine abortion bans, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a group that advocates for abortion rights.

The 2018 law represents the third time Kansas legislators passed a measure meant to outlaw telemedicine abortions.

In 2011, a ban was part of legislation imposing special regulations on abortion clinics that critics argued were meant to shut them down. Providers sued, and Theis blocked all of the regulations. The case is still pending.

Legislators passed another version of the telemedicine abortion ban in 2015, but Theis ruled Monday that it also is covered by his order blocking the 2011 clinic regulations. He called that 2011 injunction a "safe harbor" for the clinic.

The 2018 law says that in policies promoting telemedicine, "nothing" authorizes "any abortion procedure via telemedicine." Theis concluded that it's toothless because it does not give prosecutors a way to bring a criminal case over a violation. He said in his order Monday that it "has no anchor for operation" — essentially rendering the clinic's lawsuit moot.

The Kansas health department has reported that in 2017, the latest data available, nearly 4,000 medication abortions were reported, or 58 percent of the state's total, all in the first trimester. It's not clear how many of them were telemedicine abortions.

While abortion opponents have a long list of legislative victories over the past decade, they've fared less well in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal of lower federal court orders barring Kansas from stripping Medicaid funds for non-abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood.

The state's first-in-the-nation ban on a common second trimester procedure anti-abortion lawmakers called "dismemberment abortion" has been on hold since 2015. In that case, the Kansas Supreme Court has yet to decide whether the state constitution protects abortion rights independently of the federal constitution — so that state courts could chart their own, more liberal course.

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