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Headlines for Monday, March 27, 2023

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Emily Fisher

U.S. Supreme Court Won't Review GOP's Kansas Congressional Map

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court won't review a congressional redistricting law enacted by the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature that critics saw as political gerrymandering. The nation's highest court said Monday without explanation that it won't hear an appeal of a Kansas Supreme Court ruling from May 2022. The Kansas court ruled that partisan gerrymandering does not violate the state constitution. The GOP map had appeared to hurt the chances of reelection for Democratic Congresswoman Sharice Davids in her Kansas City-area district, but Davids won in November. The law also moved the liberal northeastern Kansas city of Lawrence into a district with heavily Republican western Kansas. Eleven voters challenged the map.

The Legislature must redraw political boundaries at least once every 10 years to ensure that districts are as equal in population as possible. The Kansas Supreme Court split 4-3 on whether the state constitution allows partisan gerrymandering. The Kansas court's majority said the state constitution doesn't bar lawmakers from considering partisan factors in drafting their maps. It added that state courts would have no clear standard for what constitutes improper gerrymandering absent a "zero tolerance" standard.


UPDATE: Kansas High Court Signals Continued Abortion Rights Support

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' highest court has signaled that it still considers access to abortion a "fundamental" right under the state constitution. Multiple justices expressed skepticism Monday during hearings over two abortion-related lawsuits and peppered an attorney for the state with tough questions as he argued that a decisive statewide vote last year affirming abortion rights "doesn't matter." The court ruled in 2019 that the state constitution protects abortion rights, and voters affirmed that last summer. One of the two cases before the state Supreme Court deals with a 2015 law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure. The other involves a 2011 law regulating abortion providers more strictly than other health care providers. Neither law has been enforced.

The state Supreme Court is considering exactly how far the Republican-controlled Legislature can go in restricting abortion under a 2019 decision protecting abortion rights. The justices heard arguments from attorneys for Kansas and abortion providers in two lawsuits but isn't likely to rule for months. But Kansas Solicitor General Tony Powell, representing the state, said last year's vote "doesn't matter" and shouldn't factor into the court's decisions on these two lawsuits because the state constitution ultimately wasn't changed since the ballot measure was defeated. Powell, who served on the state Court of Appeals before joining the Kansas attorney general's office, said abortion issues can't be resolved by "judicial fiat." "We need to let the people work it out," through elected lawmakers, he told the Supreme Court. Five of the six justices present for the arguments expressed skepticism while questioning Powell, who at one point said, "I'm doing the best I can." "We had a vote in August," Justice Dan Biles told him. "That's the elephant in the room."

The justices did ask Alice Wang, a Center for Reproductive Rights attorney representing the abortion providers, whether preserving life was a compelling state interest. She said that question was before the state Supreme Court when it ruled in 2019. "This court declined to recognize any compelling interest," Wang said.

The state is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn its 2019 decision, but the two cases also give the court the chance to narrow that ruling's scope by upholding either or both laws. Many Republicans had expected Kansas voters to approve the proposed state constitutional change in August, and Powell acknowledged that he was "boxed in" by the state's failure to challenge much of the evidence presented by abortion providers to the trial court judge. Powell repeatedly argued that the justices also ought to consider federal court decisions or even decisions from other states' courts. "I think the court should have its blinders off," he said.

(Earlier reporting...)

Kansas Court to Review Pair of Unenforced Abortion Laws

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP/KPR) — The Kansas Supreme Court is considering how far the state can go in restricting abortion after a statewide vote last year confirming that the state constitution protects abortion rights. The court is set to hear arguments today (MON) from attorneys in two lawsuits. One challenges a 2015 law banning a second-trimester abortion procedure that critics call dismemberment abortion. The other challenges a 2011 law regulating abortion providers more strictly than other health care providers. Neither law has been enforced. The court said in 2019 that abortion access is a "fundamental" right under the state constitution. Last August, Kansas voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have lifted those constitutional protections and allowed the Legislature to restrict or even ban abortion.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in June 2022 that the U.S. Constitution doesn't protect abortion rights and that states can ban abortion, but the Kansas court ruled in 2019 that access to abortion is a "fundamental" right under the state constitution. That led the Republican-controlled Legislature to put a proposed amendment on last August's ballot asking voters whether to lift that constitutional protection, which would have allowed lawmakers to restrict or ban abortion. Voters rejected the measure.

Kansas allows most abortions up until the 22nd week of pregnancy, attracting patients from other states with bans, most notably Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Abortion opponents fear that Kansas courts will overturn many of the restrictions imposed over the past 30 years. But they also see the two cases before the state's highest court as an opportunity for its seven justices to reconsider the 2019 decision or at least narrow its scope.

"There's no way to know what they're going to do, but quite frankly, I think there's a reason for them to back off," Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who opposes abortion, said before the hearings.

The court will likely take months to issue rulings.

Among Republican-leaning states, Kansas is an outlier in preserving abortion access, in part because the state's abortion opponents preferred making year-by-year incremental changes prior to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling. However, the state still forces patients to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion, requires minors to get parental consent, spells out what patients must be told in writing beforehand and even mandates that the information for patients be printed in 12-point Times New Roman type.

Three members of the court's 6-1 majority retired after the 2019 decision, but their replacements all were appointed by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, a strong supporter of abortion.

"The court was clear before, and they did a really comprehensive analysis of the state constitution," said Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates three of Kansas' six clinics that provide abortions. She added: "I'd much rather be on the abortion rights side."

The 2019 state Supreme Court ruling came in the early stages of the lawsuit over the ban on the second-trimester procedure. The justices kept the law on hold but sent the case back to the trial court to examine the ban further. A trial judge said the law could not stand.

The law deals with a certain type of dilation and evacuation, or D&E, procedure. According to state health department statistics, about 500 D&E procedures are done in Kansas each year, accounting for 6% of the state's total abortions. About 90% of the state's abortions occur in the first trimester. A D&E procedure ban would force providers to use alternative methods that the Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights advocate, has said are riskier for the patient and more expensive.

Abortion providers saw the law requiring them to comply with stricter regulations than other types than of doctors as an attempt to regulate them out of business. Before it was set to take effect in July 2011, it appeared briefly that no Kansas provider would be able to comply, though a Kansas City-area Planned Parenthood clinic ultimately did. A trial court judge ruled that the state had no justification for rules applying only to abortion providers, and the state appealed.

Those behind the clinic regulation law argued that it would make clinics safer for women seeking abortions.

Their argument for banning the second-trimester procedure was summed up in how they wrote the law. It specifically would prohibit doctors from using forceps or similar instruments on a live fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces. "Absolutely, we are hoping that the Kansas Supreme Court will realize that it went too far," said Jeanne Gawdun, lobbyist for Kansans for Life, the most influential anti-abortion group at the Kansas Statehouse and a key player within the state GOP.


Kansas House Votes to Prohibit Bans on Plastic Bags, Straws

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas House has voted to prohibit local governments from banning single use plastics, like plastic bags and straws. But the bill fell short of a veto-proof majority and may not survive. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly vetoed a similar measure last year. Supporters argue plastic bans hurt small businesses that would need to spend more money on alternatives. Republican Representative Pat Proctor says many restaurants could even go bankrupt. “Restaurants operate on a razor thin margin. And we’ve already had to raise our prices because of the cost of eggs, the cost of meat," Proctor said. Critics say the bill takes away local control from city and county governments. The bill now heads to the Senate.


Kansas Legislature Looks for Compromise on Tax Cuts

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Kansas lawmakers are looking for a compromise on how much to cut taxes. The Republican-led House will vote on a bill this week that’s closer to what Democratic Governor Laura Kelly wants than to the package of tax-cut measures passed earlier by the GOP-dominated Senate. The Senate bills would reduce state tax revenue by nearly $3 billion over the next three years. The cuts in the House bill come to a about $1.3 billion in lost revenue over the next three years. Both the Senate and House bills would replace the state’s three income tax brackets with a flat tax, but the single rate in the House measure is slightly higher. Republicans on the House Tax Committee say their tax-cut bill is based on what the state can afford. Hoping to get bipartisan support, House Republicans included some of the governor's proposals in the bill. For example, the measure would expedite the end of the sales tax on groceries, eliminating it entirely this July instead of in January 2025.


Family of Girl Killed by Police During Kansas Standoff Files Lawsuit

BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. (AP) — The family of a toddler who was fatally shot by a police officer during a standoff last year between her father and law enforcement has filed a federal lawsuit over her death. Kansas authorities have said that 2-year-old Clesslyn Crawford was shot by a Joplin, Missouri, police officer during a confrontation March 26, 2022, in Baxter Springs. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation had said Crawford's 37-year-old father, Eli Crawford, shot and killed the girl's mother, 27-year-old Taylor Dawn Shutte, and fired at officers for more than three hours before fatally shooting himself. The Wichita Eagle reports that the girl's family sued the cities of Baxter Springs and Joplin along with Cherokee County and the unnamed officer who fired the shot that killed the toddler. The lawsuit said they were responsible for the girl's death. Those cities and Cherokee County didn't immediately respond to calls from the newspaper seeking comment on the lawsuit. Officers from the Joplin police department and Cherokee County Sheriff's Department responded to the standoff. Joplin is 15 miles northeast of Baxter Springs.


Study: Firearm Suicide Rates Higher in Rural Areas

HAYS, Kan. (KNS/HPPR) - A recent study says Americans in non-urban areas are at higher risk of dying by firearms than Americans living in big cities. That’s because of the high per-capita rates of suicide in many rural areas. The rate of firearm deaths in Kansas is 24% higher than the national average. But it’s not because of homicides. Those are below average. It’s because Kansans die by firearm suicides at a rate nearly 50% higher than the nation overall. The report from RAND, a public policy and health issues research group, found similar rates in other largely rural Great Plains states, too. RAND estimates that changing some Kansas gun laws, such as requiring a waiting period before buying a gun and raising the minimum purchasing age to 20, could prevent dozens of firearm deaths in the state each year.


Lawrence School Board to Vote on Closing Two Elementary Schools

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KSHB) — The Lawrence School Board will decide tonight (MON) whether to close two elementary schools in USD 497. The school board will vote on a resolution to close Broken Arrow Elementary and a resolution to close Pinckney Elementary during its Monday meeting. Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis previously said the district plans to close three elementary schools and re-purpose one middle school in order to find the funding to raise wages. The plan could save the district more than $4.7 million dollars. In addition to Pinckney and Broken Arrow, KSHB TV reports that the district also has plans to close Woodlawn Elementary and re-purpose Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. Some community members have responded to the potential closures by protesting outside district offices, saying they believe there's another way forward, but the district says if its serious about raising wages, closing and re-purposing schools is the only way.


Former Haskell President Files Complaint Alleging Corruption, Criminal Misconduct

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - A former Haskell Indian Nations University president has filed a complaint alleging “corruption, serial malfeasance, criminal misconduct and administrative wrongdoing” at the Bureau of Indian Education and on campus during his tenure. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that former president Ronald Graham submitted the complaint today (MON) to the Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. The Office of Special Counsel protects federal employees from retaliation for whistleblowing. The Bureau of Indian Education oversees Haskell’s operations, meaning people who work at the university are federal employees. Graham served as Haskell’s president for about a year before he was removed from office following an internal investigation, criticism that he was stifling the free speech rights of students and faculty on campus and a vote of no confidence from Haskell’s faculty senate.


Kansas Women Advance to "Fab Four" of WNIT

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) - The University of Kansas women’s basketball team has advanced to the WNIT's "Fab Four” after beating Arkansas 78-64 Sunday at Allen Fieldhouse. The Kansas Jayhawks jumped out to a 15-2 lead in the first quarter and never trailed in the game. Senior guard Holly Kersgieter led KU is scoring with 25 points. "I think people expect us to maybe slow down each game. Or not keep playing like that every game that we’re in, but we are. We’re not letting anything discourage us." KU is 23-12 this season and has another home game Wednesday at 6:30 pm. The Jayhawks will host the Washington Huskies.


Fans Gather at Airport to Greet K-State Wildcats Returning from NCAA Tournament

MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW) – Fans of the Kansas State men's basketball team gathered at the Manhattan airport Sunday to greet the team as it arrived back home from the NCAA Tournament in New York. WIBW TV reports that hundreds of fans lined up to welcome the Wildcats. K-State fell one victory short of making it to the NCAA's Final Four. The Cats were defeated by Florida Atlantic University 79-to-76 on Saturday. The players seemed thrilled with their reception and took time to sign autographs and take selfies with many of their fans.


Kansas Will Get Part of Settlement Against Cryptocurrency Platform

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) – Kansas has joined 27 other states in a $22.5 million settlement against Nexo Capital, a cryptocurrency-related financial service company. Kansas Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt says the Office of the Kansas Securities Commissioner, a division of her department, joined the multistate settlement against Nexo Capital, which was accused of selling unregistered securities. “The securities laws of Kansas exist first and foremost to protect Kansas investors,” said Schmidt. “While the Department does not directly regulate cryptocurrency, we do have regulatory jurisdiction over securities products that are related to cryptocurrencies and will continue to enforce state law.” Kansas will receive nearly $425,000 for its part in the overall settlement.


Mobile Mammogram Fleet Launches in Wichita

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS) - A major hospital system in south-central Kansas is trying to boost breast cancer screening with a mobile mammography vehicle. The move comes after more women missed routine screenings during the pandemic. Breast cancer is less deadly when it’s caught early. But only 7 in 10 Kansas women over the age of 40 have had a recent screening. The new Ascension Via Christi mobile clinic vehicle will offer 3-D mammograms at job sites around Wichita, Manhattan and Pittsburg starting this summer. Officials with Ascension Via Christi oncology department say the goal is to make it easier for working women to get screened. The state health department says bringing mammograms to women can help reduce disparities. Hispanic, Black and rural Kansans are often diagnosed with breast cancer later, and are more likely to die from it.


Topeka Man Sentenced in 2021 Killing

TOPEKA, Kan. (TCJ/KPR) - A Topeka man has been sentenced to more than 18 years in prison for a 2021 homicide at a Topeka hotel. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that 21-year-old Isaiah Quin Dale Krainbill pleaded guilty in December to second-degree murder and attempted aggravated robbery in the shooting death of James Epps Jr. Investigators say the shooting at the Travelers Inn Motel on August 24, 2021 was the result of a drug deal gone wrong.


Former Free State High School Educator Granted Probation for Sex Crimes Against 2 Teen Girls

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - A former Free State High School para-educator has been granted probation in Douglas County for sex crimes against teenage girls. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that 30-year-old Jalil Lynn Brown, of Lawrence, entered a no contest plea to one felony count of aggravated indecent liberties with a child and one felony count of sexual exploitation of a child. The two girls were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time of the incidents. Brown originally faced additional felony counts of sexual exploitation and other charges but they were dismissed as part of a plea agreement. In addition to the dismissal of other charges, the state agreed to support a motion for departure from prison to probation. On Friday, Judge Amy Hanley said she would grant the departure to probation because the state had supported it in the plea agreement and because Brown had no prior felony convictions. Brown will also be required to register as a sex offender.


Kansas Bank Robbery Suspect Dies in Oklahoma Shootout

PERRY, Okla. (AP) — Authorities say a suspect in a Kansas bank robbery died Friday after a shootout with troopers in neighboring Oklahoma. The suspect in the Wellington, Kansas, bank heist fled south on Interstate 35 into Oklahoma where authorities had been alerted to be on the lookout. A pursuit ensued and shot were exchanged. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said in a news release that the chase ended near the intersection of I-35 and U.S. 412 when the suspect fled on foot. The release said more shots then were exchanged and that the suspect died. The name of the suspect wasn't immediately released. No troopers were hurt. The patrol said that the shooting is under investigation.


Access to Federal Funds Varies Widely in Rural Areas

UNDATED (HPM/KPR) - Rural areas have more trouble accessing federal programs and funding. That's according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Inflation Reduction Act provides funds for clean energy, transportation and more for rural areas. The act includes funding for the largest investment in rural electrification since 1936. But the USDA says some rural communities may have trouble accessing those funds. Harvest Public Media reports that the process to access the funds is competitive and it’s more difficult for towns with fewer resources to go after the funding. Advocates for rural communities suggest that towns create a taskforce to apply for Inflation Reduction Act funding and other opportunities over the next few years. Small towns can also try to get assistance through philanthropic organizations or collaborating regionally.


As Emergency Food Aid Ends, Lawrence Food Pantry Braces for Impact

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - Another pandemic relief program has come to an end and the leader of Just Food expects the local food pantry to be profoundly affected. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through emergency allotments to help mitigate the country’s hunger crisis. But in Kansas and other states, SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — are reverting back to their pre-pandemic levels. The effects will be significant, Just Food Director Brett Hartford told the Lawrence Journal-World and the food bank is already bracing itself. “The pandemic was daunting on its own,” Hartford said. “Now, this directly affects the community in the way that we are tasked with meeting their needs. We’re expecting it to be bad, honestly.” Using a worst-case scenario, Hartford said the community was looking at upward of $1 million less in spending power at the grocery store as extra benefits cease.

Just Food currently spends about $40,000 per month on food purchases, and Hartford said leadership was expecting that wouldn’t be enough to bridge the gap. That monthly cost is going to rise by 20%, to about $50,000, because of the SNAP change. That all comes as the food bank is already seeing a significant number of visitors, including 350 new first-time visitors in January and 392 in February. In total, Just Food saw nearly 10,000 different individuals visit during those two months, and Hartford said he expected visitor numbers to increase even further.


Kansas Board of Regents Approves KU Criminal Justice Degree

TOPEKA (KNS) – The Kansas Board of Regents has approved a new criminal justice degree at the University of Kansas, despite concerns about duplicating programs at other state schools. Wichita State University and Fort Hays State University both opposed the move, saying the state doesn’t need another criminal justice program to compete with the programs they already offer. But the Regents approved the measure and KU’s program will be available online and at the university’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park. University of Kansas Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer says duplication isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “There’s also duplication based on need, and there’s certainly market data to show that there’s a great need and there’s a lot of support for this,” Bichelmeyer said. The Regents approved a new criminal justice program at Kansas State earlier this year. All six of the state’s major universities now offer four-year degrees in criminal justice.


This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers, including J. Schafer, Laura Lorson, Tom Parkinson and Kaye McIntyre. Our headlines are generally posted by 10 am weekdays and updated throughout the day. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.