Mojo - June 2011

Kansas to Shut Down All but One Abortion Clinic Friday

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 4:43 PM EDT

This story has been updated below.

It's official. Every abortion provider in the state of Kansas has been denied a license to continue operating as of July 1. As we reported last week, strict new state laws put in place this month threatened to close the remaining three abortion clinics in Kansas. The staff of one of these facilities, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, initially thought their operation could survive the strict new standards. But on Thursday afternoon, Planned Parenthood announced that the Overland Park clinic has thus far been denied a license to continue operating—effectively cutting off access to legal abortion in the entire state.

The new law, which takes effect Friday, establishes new standards for abortion providers—standards apparently designed to make compliance difficult. The rules require changes to the size and number of rooms, compel clinics to have additional supplies on hand, and even mandate room temperatures for the facilities. Given that the rules were released less than two weeks before clinics were expected to be in compliance, many providers knew they wouldn't be able to obtain a license to continue operating. The laws, often called "targeted regulation of abortion providers," or TRAP laws, are an increasingly common legislative maneuver to limit access to abortion by redering it tough, if not impossible, for providers to comply.

With today's announcement that the Overland Park clinic was denied a license, Kansas becomes the first state to effectively make the legally protected right to obtain abortion services moot. One clinic in Kansas has already filed suit against the new rules, and a hearing on that suit is planned for Friday. Planned Parenthood is also expected to sue. The clinics are also expected to seek an injunction to block the law from being enforced. UPDATE: Planned Parenthood has filed suit. They are seeking an emergency injunction to allow their clinic to remain open while the lawsuit is pending.

"The women of Kansas waiting on their scheduled procedures will pay the immediate price for this outrageous and flagrant exertion of the radical GOP’s legislative muscle under the Brownback administration," said Kansas NOW in a statement Thursday, referring to conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. "The freedom and right to legal healthcare has been denied to the women of Kansas." 

UPDATE: In a statement issued Thursday evening, Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, seemed to hold out some hope that its clinic could still obtain a license to continue operating, even as the organization sought an injuction to block the law from taking effect. "We have been targeted in this bill and Kansas women are the ones who will suffer if their health care is taken away," said Brownlie. "This is radical, extreme government intrusion into private health care."

UPDATE 5:45 PM EST THURSDAY: The Associated Press is reporting that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, after initially denying a license to Planned Parenthood, has now changed their mind. Stay tuned for more updates. PP said inspectors were back at the clinic Thursday reevaluating it, after earlier this week indicating that they would not be able to obtain one.

UPDATE 6:08 PM EST THURSDAY: Planned Parenthood just announced that the health department has, in fact, decided to grant it a license to continue operating. The PP clinic in Overland Park will remain open. "Notwithstanding that the regulations are burdensome and unnecessary, the findings of the inspection indicate what we have known and said throughout this process: Planned Parenthood operates with the highest standards of patient care and has rigorous safety procedures in place," Brownlie said.

UPDATE 7:15 PM EST FRIDAY: A federal judge in Kansas City has blocked the new abortion clinic regulations from taking effect.

Want To Know More? Mother Jones has been covering this story from the beginning. We were ahead of the national media on the story that Kansas might close its clinics, and on Monday we told readers about other states that are trying to follow Kansas' lead. Earlier today, we told you about how one senator is trying to tack an abortion ban on to a trade deal, and yesterday, we explained how Planned Parenthood is under attack in states around the country. We also have a map of abortion coverage bans around the country, and we were the first to tell you about how a bill passed in the Republican-led House of Representatives could change the definition of rape for the purposes of abortion law and deny statutory rape victims access to Medicaid-funded abortions.

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Stephen Colbert Wins PAC Approval—Without Destroying Political Cash Laws

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 2:45 PM EDT

When Stephen Colbert created his own so-called super PAC and said he planned to use his satirical Comedy Central show to promote it, he seemed to be using that age-old shtick—parody—to highlight the growing political power of corporations after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. At the least, his ploy would bring some attention to the nation's dysfunctional political money watchdog, the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

So last month the television host, in his bombastic conservative persona, asked the feds to let him use staff, equipment, and airtime from his show to help his PAC without having it count as a political contribution from Comedy Central's parent company, the media giant Viacom. (Viacom doesn't want to be in the business of donating to Colbert's PAC.)

Today Colbert got what he wanted—sort of. The FEC ruled this morning that Viacom resources can be used to fund "Colbert Super PAC" ads or promotions without the PAC having to report them as corporate donations. But there's a catch: those ads can only appear on Colbert's eponymous show. Any Colbert Super PAC ad that appears elsewhere, the FEC ruled, must be reported as a campaign contribution—something Viacom wants no part of.

Here's the legal background. Campaign finance law includes something called the "media exemption." This applies to corporate-owned newspapers, magazines, TV outlets, and other publications that run stories, editorials, and commentary backing a candidate. The exemption says that spending doesn't count as a corporate contribution because it's for a legitimate media purpose.

However, reformers and good government groups argued (PDF) Colbert's PAC doesn't fall under the "media exemption." Colbert's a satirist, not a reporter. His plan to use "Colbert Report" resources to pump out ads and billboards for his PAC goes beyond Viacom's role as a news company, and so shouldn't be covered by the media exemption, they said. As such, any work done by Colbert's staff or using Viacom resources should be reported as donations, they maintained.

In the end, the FEC gave Colbert his media exemption, but in the narrowest possible way. The decision was lauded by reformers increasingly piqued by the FEC's actions. As I wrote earlier this year:

Ask experts and good-government groups about the decline of the FEC, and they'll inevitably give you an earful about the Freedom's Watch controversy. Or they'll explain how the percentage of groups disclosing their donors has plummeted by more than 60 percent since 2004 (PDF). Or they'll lament how, more than a year after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the FEC has barely begun debating what it means.

Crippled by the kind of paralysis that makes Congress look like a well-oiled machine, the FEC is a shell of a watchdog at a time when more money is gushing into American politics than ever before. "The Federal Election Commission is a national scandal," says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign-finance reform group Democracy 21. "We have no enforcement of the campaign-finance laws."

Gridlock tops the list of the FEC's problems. In the mid-2000s, the FEC deadlocked on about 1 percent of enforcement actions against alleged violators of campaign finance law. But by 2009, the commission's deadlocked votes spiked to 16 percent, dipping only slightly to 11 percent in 2010. Reformers blame the three conservatives on the six-person commission for clogging up the system, blowing open new legal loopholes, and sometimes even refusing to enforce the laws on the books.

But in the eyes of reformers, the FEC's narrow decision was the right one. "This is the way the law is now," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. In a statement, Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said, "The impact of today's opinion by the FEC goes beyond Mr. Colbert and his well-known satirical show, and ensures that the numerous television show hosts and commentators who are serious politicians cannot exploit the press exemption."

Hatch Aims To Tack Abortion Ban on to Trade Pact

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

What does the Korean free trade agreement have to do with abortion? You got me. But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) plans to offer an amendment in today's markup of a handful of trade bills in the Senate Finance Committee that would bar Medicaid funding for abortions.

The amendment is described as seeking "to close the loophole that sends taxpayer dollars to fund operational costs for abortions." It would block Medicaid dollars from being used at "any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility where abortions are performed." It's hard to begin on how bad this would be. Basically, any facility that offered abortion for any reason—even a hospital providing it as life-saving emergency care for a woman—would not be able to accept Medicaid payment. The effect would be that hospitals and clinics that currently offer abortion would likely stop doing so in order to be able to continue accepting Medicaid money, and the low-income women who rely on Medicaid would be effectively denied abortion coverage entirely.

Of course, if it did pass (which it probably won't), it could conflict with other laws that bar discrimination among health care providers. When Indiana tried to block Medicaid funds from being used at Planned Parenthood last month, it was blocked by the feds because it's illegal to discriminate among health care providers. The state is appealing the court injunction that blocks it from taking effect, but it's not likely that the law is going to hold up.

Rather ironically, the Republican communication staff for the Finance committee, on which Hatch sits as the ranking Minority member, sent out a press release today criticizing the committee Democrats for "including unrelated and highly-controversial provisions" in today's markup by adding a domestic spending program to the list of measures to be considered. Hatch's office declared that move "partisan" and an "abuse" of the trade authority of the committee. At least that provision had something to do with trade.

Rick Perry's Christians-Only Prayerfest

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 1:43 PM EDT

In early August, Texas Republican governor and possible presidential candidate Rick Perry will host a prayer summit at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The event, dubbed "The Response" and funded by the American Family Association (which was labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center), is designed to combat the economic, political, and spiritual crises facing the United States by returning the nation to its Biblical roots. The Response's website proclaims, "There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees." And in a video message Perry sent out this week, he noted, "I'm inviting you to join your fellow Americans for a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation." Perhaps Perry should have clarified what sort of "fellow Americans" he meant, for at this event only Christians will be allowed to share the podium with Perry.

Since the event was first announced in early June, organizers have suggested that it would be a great opportunity to convert non-Christians. Now, they've gone even further: According to an email blasted out by The Response, only Christians will be permitted to speak at the non-denominational event. If representatives of other faiths (particularly Muslims) were to be included, the email noted, such inclusion would promote "idolatry." In a message sent out under The Response's official letterhead, Allan Parker, one of Perry's organizers, described the event in less-than-ecumenical terms:

This is an explicitly Christian event because we are going to be praying to the one true God through His son, Jesus Christ. It would be idolatry of the worst sort for Christians to gather and invite false gods like Allah and Buddha and their false prophets to be with us at that time. Because we have religious liberty in this country, they are free to have events and pray to Buddha and Allah on their own. But this is time of prayer to the One True God through His son, Jesus Christ, who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

With this prayerfest, Perry is associating himself with rather radical folks. The American Family Association's issues director, for instance, has said that gays are "Nazis" and that Muslims should be converted to Christianity. Another organizer, Doug Stringer, has said that 9/11 was God's punishment for the nation's creeping secularism. And then there's Jay Swallow, whose endorsement is trumpeted on The Response's website, and who runs "A Christian Military Training Camp for the purpose of dealing with the occult and territorial enemy strong holds in America" (his description). Consequently, it's not much of a mystery why only one of the nation's other 49 governors has so far accepted Perry's invitation to attend the event (Perry invited all of them)—arch-conservative Sam Brownback of Kansas.

The US Senate Gets Gold Rush Fever

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 9:38 AM EDT

Good news, gold bugs. In an effort to promote hard money as an alternative to paper dollars, three tea party senators—Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—introduced legislation this week to exempt gold and silver coins from taxation. Via Peter Kasperowicz:

"In order to rebuild strength and confidence in our economy, we need both the fiscal discipline to cut wasteful spending and the monetary discipline to restrain further destructive monetizing of our debt," [Lee] said. "This legislation would encourage wider adoption of sound money measures, and that's a step in the right direction."

In the same statement, Lee said the dollar has lost 98 percent of its value since 1913. Sen. Paul said it would show that "states are serious about an alternative to a weakening dollar."

The bill is designed to make it easier for state governments to transition to the use of so-called "sound-money" currency. As I reported back in March, more than a dozen states have introduced proposals to, in various ways, promote the use of alternative currencies in official transactions. The argument for this is a constitutional one—supporters say they're simply trying to bring their states in line with Article 1 Section 10 of the Constitution, which stipulates that gold and silver coins be legal tender. 

There are also economic concerns. As tends to be the case with collectors of precious metals, supporters believe that the nation's finances are in even worse shape than we've been led to believe, and that the only way out of a Zimbabwe-style (or Weimar-style—take your pick) inflationary collapse is a return to the hard stuff. "It's kind of like if you think back to the Katrina catastrophe, and you read about all the proposals that were made to strengthen and secure the levies that were just never done," as one gold booster told me at the time. Utah—which, in the grips of a tea party fervor, replaced long-time conservative stalwart Robert Bennett with Lee last summer—became the first state to actually pass a pro-gold bill back in March. That law asserts the right of the state to use gold and silver as legal tender and sets up a committee to study the implementation.

But states that are looking to go back to gold face a few obstacles—namely, that there's no infrastructure to actually handle an infusion of gold currency. Carrying around a pouch of gold coins would be a burden (and vaguely Medieval), and so boosters tend to agree that for it really to take off, you'd need a centralized storage facility and then a debit-card-like transaction system, neither of which currently exist. And then there's the cost: gold and silver coins from the US Mint are the only coins that could be used as legal tender, and there's a significant markup on those in addition to the taxes. The Lee-Demint-Paul bill is attempting to tackle just one piece of the problem by making it less cost-prohibitive.

So, does the bill stand any chance of passing? It's a long shot. But it doesn't hurt that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is himself an unabashed cheerleader for the gold lobby.

The State Budget Blame Game

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 6:25 AM EDT
West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. - Financial Counselor Denise Floyd(cq) helps client Carlos Pasos(cq) of West Palm Beach navigate services, including Medicaid. Health care reform is going to make significantly more people eligible for Medicaid.

Dear struggling states: things are bad, getting worse, and there's no end in sight. That's the general thrust behind a report published this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The study looks at the impact of savage cuts in FY 2012 state budgets around the country. Of the 32 spending bills enacted so far—most of which go into effect on Friday—as least 24 of them essentially gut public service spending.

In the cuts, there's a little of something for the austerity fiend in everyone. For the anti-entitlement crowd:

Arizona is eliminating Medicaid coverage for 130,000 adults without children, freezing Medicaid enrollment for all other childless adults, and setting in motion a phase-out of the 150,000 childless beneficiaries still enrolled.

Meanwhile, Florida's ripping a page out of the Scott Walker playbook and taking its budgetary woes out on public workers (and poor kids):

Florida is terminating employment for 1,300 public employees, reducing Medicaid payment rates by 12 percent for most hospitals, and cutting 15,000 children from a school readiness program that helps low-income families obtain high quality child care, among many other cuts.

And speaking of Wisconsin:

Wisconsin is cutting the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for 152,000 families with two or more children by 21 percent, which amounts to an average credit cut of $518 for families with three or more children and $154 for families with two children. The state also is cutting $740 million, or about 8 percent, from K-12 spending designed to equalize funding across school districts.

While the recession certainly bears its fair share of the blame, some states, including Georgia and Arizona, recently enacted irresponsible tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy while further widening tax loopholes that lapped up potential government revenue. Arizona, for example, cut corporate income tax rates and commercial property taxes, voluntarily forgoing $38 million in potential revenue for 2012. That amounts to 4 percent of the state's 2012 budget shortfall, according to CBPP's number crunchers.

So is the Obama administration to blame? States did receive $165 billion in stimulus money over the past two-and-a-half-years to help them avoid some spending cuts and tax increases. But most of that funding officially dries up today. CBPP recommends that the federal government help out the most vulnerable by extending emergency Medicaid funding to struggling states. The odds of that happening, though, are laughable, given the anti-spending mood in the Republican-run House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, whatever debt ceiling compromise emerges in the coming weeks is almost certain to exacerbate states' problems. Seems there's more than enough blame to go around.

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Dennis Kucinich's Syria Problem

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 6:13 AM EDT

Here's a good rule-of-thumb for any congressman: When someone accuses you of supporting a brutal, fascist-influenced regime that is openly slaughtering its own people, it's generally a good idea to respond with an unambiguous "No, I do not support, and I strongly denounce, the actions of [insert regional dictator's name here]."

That advice seems to have been lost on Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has drawn some attention for his most recent "fact-finding" mission to Syria.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 30, 2011

Thu Jun. 30, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army 1st Lt. John Dundee (left) leads a group of Soldiers from the town of Gomerai, back to Combat Outpost Najil in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on June 15, 2011. DoD photo by Staff. Sgt Ryan C. Matson, U.S. Army.

Rhode Island Gay Rights Advocates: No Civil Unions!

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:02 PM EDT

Before New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage less than a week ago, state senators there carefully crafted religious exemptions to satisfy Republicans who proved key to the bill's final passage. Now, Rhode Island is engaged in a similar debate, only this time it's same-sex marriage advocates who oppose a civil unions bill that they say provides too many exemptions. But the bill's headed to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who says he will sign it.

At issue is an amendment to the bill with language that says religious organizations "shall not be required" to conduct civil-union ceremonies or "treat as valid any civil union." Gay rights groups fear that would lead hospitals with religious affiliations to deny LGBT people the ability to make health care decisions for their partners. And they believe that other organizations, like schools and cemeteries, might also get away with refusing services to gay couples on religious grounds.

Map of the Day: States Banning Abortion Coverage

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 5:57 PM EDT

Recently, GOP state legislators have come up with a number of, er, creative ways to attack abortion and reproductive health. There are the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, the Nebraska copycat laws (which ban abortion after 20 weeks, and were enacted in five states in 2011), the TRAP laws, the "Heartbeat" law, the "personhood" debate, not to mention ongoing efforts to dole out misleading information to women seeking abortions. There's also been an incredible surge in state efforts to keep insurance companies from funding abortions—to date, 15 states have enacted some type of ban, and another 15 states have proposed bans this year.

"Taking away insurance coverage of abortion interferes in a woman's ability to make personal, private decisions with her doctor," says Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, which produced the map below. "We are concerned about women whose pregnancies experience complications because they could be forced to pay out of pocket for abortion, even if it's necessary to protect their health."

Below, bans "in exchange" (light purple) pertains to insurance plans mandated by federal health care reform, including private plans.

Map: NARAL Pro-Choice America FoundationMap: NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation