Op-Ed

Kentucky lawmakers waste taxpayers’ money on abortion laws already struck down in other states

Pro-choice advocates rallied in Capitol Rotunda in 2017.
Pro-choice advocates rallied in Capitol Rotunda in 2017. jbrammer@herald-leader.com

With a projected budget shortfall of $156 million, deep cuts to public education, and a severely underfunded pension system, Kentucky can’t afford more junk legislation that results in taxpayers’ dollars financing the American Civil Liberties Union or private attorneys.

The 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

That means that a state couldn’t pass legislation banning all firearms without it being blocked in federal court; no state could designate Buddhism as its official religion without a judge finding it unconstitutional. And no state could attempt to legally limit a person’s right to terminate a pregnancy before viability and assume judges will turn their backs on federal law.

When states create arbitrary legislation, taxpayers suffer.

During Vice President Mike Pence’s first three years (2013-2015) as governor of Indiana, legal fees paid to the ACLU approached $2 million when Indiana laws to limit access to abortion and prevent same-sex marriage were challenged in court. Indiana taxpayers picked up the tab.

Five bills similar to the expensive Indiana laws have been filed in Kentucky this year. Most likely to become law is House Bill 454, which would prohibit an abortion procedure called “dilation and evacuation” 11 weeks post-fertilization or later into a pregnancy, except in medical emergencies.

HB 454’s sponsor, Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, said the bill isn’t unconstitutional because several other procedures remain available for women who elect to terminate their pregnancies, including induction of labor.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists disagrees. “The predominant approach to abortion after 13 weeks, commonly referred to as ‘dilation and evacuation,’ is evidence-based and medically preferred because it results in the fewest complications for women compared to alternative procedures.”

Kentucky law also disagrees with Wuchner. Labor induction must take place in a hospital, and Kentucky statue 311.800 makes that almost impossible: “No publicly owned hospital or other publicly owned health care facility shall perform or permit the performance of abortions, except to save the life of the pregnant woman.”

When HB 454 came to the House floor on March 12, Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, admonished, “A ‘yes’ vote means you are willing to waste taxpayer money and your constituents’ money on a measure that is unconstitutional.”

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, predicted the measure could cost taxpayers upwards of $1 million in legal fees.

Spending taxpayers’ money to defend a bill that infringes on the Constitution caused Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, R-Lexington, to respond, “To that (threat of legal action), I say bring it.”

Benvenuti and I stand on opposite sides of the abortion debate, but I’m surprised at his eagerness to spend taxpayers’ money; his website suggests a passionate belief in fiscal responsibility, “The thoughtless, misguided, and mismanaged spending of the taxpayer dollar is a pursuit which has failed Kentucky again and again.”

Dilation and evacuation bans have been signed in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia. The only states where it’s currently in effect are Mississippi and West Virginia, because they haven’t yet been challenged in court.

I can’t think of a more thoughtless or misguided spending of Kentuckian’s hard-earned dollars than passing a law that has been blocked or enjoined in every state where it’s been challenged.

A popular trope about blindly following the crowd seems appropriate, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?”

Supporters of anti-abortion legislation claim they want to decrease abortions because they value life. However, the only proven way to decrease abortions is to reduce unintended pregnancies by increasing access to contraception and comprehensive sex-education.

Instead of passing legislation that would actually reduce unintended pregnancies that result in abortion, our legislators keep filing irrational bills, year after year.

In January 2017 the Kentucky General Assembly passed two anti-abortion bills that Gov. Matt Bevin quickly signed. Only one was challenged in court; House Bill 2 required doctors to show women an image of their ultrasound, describe what it depicts and share the heartbeat if one is present.

The ACLU filed a challenge on the same day Bevin signed it into law.

In October, U.S. District Judge David Hale struck it down, saying the law violates doctors’ First Amendment rights. Bevin promised to appeal.

The longer the case stays in court, the more money the ACLU racks up in legal fees. Kentuckians will be responsible for paying those fees.

Taxpayers already must pick up the tab for Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ stand against marriage equality. A federal judge ordered Kentucky to pay nearly $225,000 in legal fees owed to couples who sued over their legal right to get marriage licenses.

Kentucky can’t afford the legal costs of thumbing our nose at the Constitution.

Our state is in such dire straits that Bevin’s proposed budget for 2018-20 went as far as to cut funding for school buses.

Kentucky can’t afford to safely transport our kids to school, but we can afford an extra $100,000 or $245,000 in legal fees like Arkansas and North Dakota were ordered to pay after they passed laws similar to HB 454?

We elect our legislators to improve Kentucky’s educational system, health care, infrastructure and economy, not to spend our money on ill-fated legislation that will only take much-needed dollars away from those things.

The estimated daily cost of the 2018 regular session is $69,795.98. Legislators receive between $188.22 to $235.57 a day, seven days a week. They also receive money to cover food and lodging, a stationery allowance, mileage reimbursement, and when they’re not in session, $1,788.51 a month to cover the cost of a home office. (Bevin’s yearly salary is $145,992.00, and the two attorneys who make up his General Counsel, Steve Pitt and Chad Meredith, make a combined $252,000.

That’s a lot of taxpayer dollars for a state with the nation’s fifth-highest poverty rate.

And we’ll stay there, unless we demand that Kentucky’s elected officials stop squandering our money on doomed legislation created out of willful ignorance.

If you want your hard-earned tax dollars used to improve Kentucky — not to pay the ACLU’s legal fees — tell your state legislators and the governor. If they don’t agree, elect someone who truly believes in fiscal responsibility. It’s your money, don’t let them waste it.

Marcie Crim is executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network.

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