Sunday, July 28, 2013

Abortion group sees special session as opportunity

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

Gov. Sam Brownback is calling the Kansas Legislature into special session Sept. 3 to deal with one aspect of the state's "Hard 50" sentencing law that has been ruled unconstitutional.

But as long as legislators are coming back into session, the leader of one anti-abortion group wants them to do more.

Mark Gietzen, who heads the Wichita-based Kansas Coalition for Life, said he believes there were enough votes lined up during the regular session to pass a bill that would ban virtually all abortions in the state, and he says lawmakers can revisit the issue during the special session.

"We just ran out of time in the 2013 session, we didn't run out of votes," Gietzen said. "We would like to pick up where we left off."

The bill Gietzen is pushing is called a "fetal heartbeat" bill because it would ban abortions on any "unborn human individual with a detectable fetal heartbeat."

Federal courts have recently blocked similar laws enacted this year in North Dakota and Arkansas. Similar bills have been introduced in Texas and other states.

The Kansas Legislature also enacted a sweeping new anti-abortion law this year, although it does not go as far as the fetal heartbeat bill would.

Most experts agree that regardless of why a special session is called, Kansas lawmakers can take up almost any issue they want, as long as it is introduced as a new bill during the special session. They are not allowed to consider bills carried over from the last previous session.

But even conservative Republicans who support tough restrictions on abortion said Friday they do not want to expand the special session beyond the single issue of the Hard 50 sentence.

"We're not opening up this to legislation that's left over or pending," said House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell. "If we start doing that, it's expensive to have a special session. I'm all in favor of saving the taxpayers dollars and getting this over with."

Brownback's spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the governor also wants to limit the special session.

"His desire is to focus only on this bill because it affects public safety," Hawley said.

The Hard 50 statute allows judges to sentence people convicted of premeditated murder to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked Brownback to call a special session last week because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that render the state's Hard 50 law unconstitutional.

In June, the Court said that juries, not judges, must decide whether there are aggravating factors that could trigger enhanced sentences like the Kansas Hard 50.

Schmidt said there are potentially dozens of cases in Kansas that could be affected by that ruling, most involving people convicted of particularly gruesome murders.