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A tangle of lawsuits has prohibited, protected and limited access to a common medication for abortion. While long-term decisions have yet to be made, some states are planning ahead. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Friday, April 14, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with two expelled Tennessee lawmakers getting reinstated, Minnesota considering fees on package deliveries and one city charting a course for an all-electric future. But first we’ll start with one of the fastest-moving and most contentious controversies involving state officials these days: the legal fight over abortion pills.
A rapidly escalating legal battle between Republican and Democratic state officials could determine how easily and how safely women can get abortions throughout the country.
The legal battle centers on mifepristone, a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than two decades ago that can be used with misoprostol to induce abortions. Two contradictory rulings in the last week—one from Texas, another from Washington state—threw the status of that approval into question, potentially eliminating the most widely used method of performing abortions.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday that a Texas decision to limit access to mifepristone is “outrageous” and a “rejection of clear science.” Democratic Connecticut Attorney General William Tong didn’t mince words either, describing the ruling as “total bullshit.”
But several Democratic governors, including Inslee, tried in advance to prepare for an adverse ruling by ordering state agencies to stockpile mifepristone before a federal judge ruled on its legal standing. In Massachusetts, the administration of Gov. Maura Healey set aside $1 million to support state-contracted providers in acquiring the drug, and directed the University of Massachusetts to purchase a supply that should last one to two years. “What the court did in Texas set an incredibly dangerous precedent,” Healey said. “It has to be overruled.”
Indeed, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to intercede one way or another. A federal appeals court—one step short of the high court—already reviewed the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Texas. The three-judge panel narrowed the scope of the ruling, but still found reasons to impose new restrictions on the availability of mifepristone. They determined that the drug should only be used during the first seven weeks of pregnancy and should not be available by mail. The panel set those restrictions to start Saturday morning.
But those orders are in direct conflict with a ruling out of Washington state, where attorneys general from 18 states sought to keep mifepristone on the market. U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice ordered the FDA to preserve access to the drug for patients in the state.
With the opposing orders, Attorney General Merrick Garland asked the Supreme Court to step in to “defend the FDA's scientific judgment and protect Americans' access to safe and effective reproductive care."
Almost all of the state attorneys general in the country have taken sides in the fight over mifepristone. Twenty-three Republican AGs backed efforts to take mifepristone off the market. Twenty-two Democratic AGs opposed those efforts in the Texas case.
Republican attorneys general also threatened legal action against Walgreens if the drug store chain carried out plans to dispense mifepristone in their states. The company at first announced it would not carry the medicine in states where the Republican attorneys general promised to sue, including several where abortion remains legal. But after significant blowback by states and consumers, Walgreens clarified its position and said it would carry mifepristone where “legally permissible. Once we are certified by the FDA, we will dispense this medication consistent with federal and state laws.”
The FDA says more than 5 million women have taken mifepristone since it was approved for use in 2000. Studies have shown that mifepristone, which is also used to treat miscarriages, is safe and effective when taken as directed. Under its initial approval, the FDA OK’d the drug to be taken within the first seven weeks of pregnancy but expanded that to 10 weeks in 2016.
As states have moved to ban abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, medication has become the most common method for terminating a pregnancy.
While Republican attorneys general have been active in the court fights to bar the dispensing of mifepristone, they have said little about the effort publicly. This week, many used social media to tout their victory in a lawsuit against the Biden administration over federal clean water rules, but had little to say about the abortion cases.
Meanwhile, Democrats have tried to call attention to their efforts to preserve access to abortion.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro told reporters that state law prevents him from using government funds to purchase mifepristone. Pennsylvania, he noted, is a “deeply politically divided” state. Republicans control the state Senate, and Democrats have a one-seat majority in the state House.
But Shapiro’s administration is working to ensure people have access to mifepristone, he said, and Pennsylvania was one of the states involved in the Washington state lawsuit. On Monday, the administration launched a new website to help patients understand where they can access abortion care and resources for paying for it.
Inslee, the Washington governor, said while the debate around mifepristone rages on, he expects people’s ability to travel for abortions will be the next issue to come under attack. He pointed to a new law in neighboring Idaho—signed by Gov. Brad Little last week—that makes it illegal for minors to travel out of state to obtain abortion pills without a parent’s permission.
Inslee described the legislation as an attempt “to control what happens to women in the state of Washington” as people travel between the states to access or distribute medication.
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here every Friday for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. Have a great weekend.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs, and Notable Events
- Expelled Black lawmakers return to work. Less than a week after being expelled, both Tennessee lawmakers are headed back to the state House following swift reinstatements by the districts they represent. Drawing accusations of racism, Republicans in the Tennessee House voted last week to remove Rep. Justin Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, both Black, but to keep white Rep. Gloria Johnson. All three were involved in a gun control protest on the House floor after a Nashville school shooter killed three children and three adults. Pearson and Jones returned on an interim basis; to stay permanently, they will need to win special elections in the coming months. Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who avoided commenting on the lawmakers’ expulsion, signed an executive order Tuesday to strengthen background checks for firearm purchases. He also called for lawmakers to pass a so-called red flag law to keep guns away from people who present a danger to themselves or others.
- Another party switch. Democrats in the Louisiana House have lost another member, the second party switch in the state in less than a month. The defection adds to a yearslong decline in Democratic electoral fortunes. State Rep. Jeremy LaCombe, a Democrat, said Monday he is switching his party affiliation to Republican. Republicans in the state House recently gained a supermajority because another Democrat, Rep. Francis Thompson, switched to the GOP. In that case, the state GOP held a press event touting the news. While party switches are rare, there have been a slate of them recently, most notably in North Carolina last week. State Rep. Tricia Cotham, who represents a heavily Democratic district in Charlotte, joined the Republican Party. When she switched parties, she gave Republicans there a supermajority—enough votes to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper at will.
- Taxing delivery fees. A package of tax and fee increases that would dedicate billions of dollars in new funding to transportation projects across the state is headed to the Minnesota House floor for a final vote next week. The bill would impose a 75-cent fee for delivery of taxable merchandise to homes and businesses. The so-called Amazon fee is expected to raise about $210 million a year. The package would also increase metro area sales taxes by 0.75% for transit projects, boost motor vehicle license tab fees for roads and bridges, and hike vehicle sales taxes.
- First right-to-repair law. Colorado farmers will be able to fix their own equipment next year, with manufacturers including John Deere required to provide them with manuals for diagnostic software and other aids, under a measure passed by legislators. If signed by Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado would be the first U.S. state to approve a so-called right-to-repair law—it's one of 11 states considering agriculture repair bills. Failure to comply with the law would result in a charge of deceptive trade practices.
- Accounting mistake. When the Washington, D.C., City Council created the baby bonds program two years ago, lawmakers touted it as a potentially transformational program to help low-income children in the city. But a seemingly unintentional mistake by city bureaucrats has now defunded the program in its entirety, forcing lawmakers to scramble to find $54 million in a tight budget to revive it. Under the program, low-income kids would get up to $1,000 a year deposited into an interest-bearing trust fund they could access once they turn 18. Then, they could use the money only to buy a house, start a business or pay for college.
- A decision in the West’s water wars. Almost half of all the water that flows through the Colorado River each year is consumed by just two states: Arizona and California. On Tuesday, the Biden administration, which has scrambled to respond to a decades-long drought that has sapped the river, unveiled two plans to achieve those cuts, promising to reach a final conclusion by August. One plan would divide future cuts equally between Arizona and California, a potential violation of California’s stronger legal rights to the river. The other plan would recognize the Golden State’s seniority and reduce Arizona’s water allocation by more than half its current size during the driest years.
- Will Ithaca be America’s first all-electric city? Snowy Ithaca, New York, has one of the most aggressive climate plans in the country, with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. It’s using a unique public-private partnership to decarbonize its 6,000 buildings in what could be a model for how to electrify cities. To get the most bang for its buck, the city honed in on decarbonizing every building, which cumulatively account for 40% of Ithaca’s overall emissions. The city teamed up with BlocPower, a clean-tech startup that focuses on retrofitting buildings, to manage the program.
- California wants to cover its canals with solar panels. Despite a very wet winter, California’s water scarcity woes aren’t finished. A new state-funded project in the San Joaquin Valley hopes to find a new way to build drought resilience. The idea is simple: Cover the state’s canals and aqueducts with solar panels to both limit evaporation and generate renewable energy. The California Department of Water Resources is providing $20 million to test the concept and determine where else along the state’s 4,000 miles of canals—one of the largest water conveyance systems in the world—it would make the most sense to install solar panels.
- Oregon’s governor granted new powers to annex land. Computer chips are Oregon’s largest export and one of the state’s top industries. The bipartisan Oregon CHIPS Act that Gov. Tina Kotek signed Thursday provides up to $210 million in grants and loans for chipmakers. Lawmakers hope the grants will pay for themselves by encouraging semiconductor manufacturers to expand their Oregon operations as they also seek a share of the $52 billion in federal CHIPS Act funding Congress approved last summer. Most notably, the new law gives Kotek broad authority to designate some land outside urban growth boundaries for annexation for semiconductor plants or other advanced manufacturing. She has until the end of 2024, to designate up to eight sites, including two that could exceed 500 acres. It’s the most contentious part of the measure, sparking hours of testimony and hundreds of letters in opposition to the measure from people who don’t want to see farmland replaced with factories.
Picture of the Week
Today, after the whole neighborhood has been upset about this giant pothole that’s been screwing up cars and bicycles for weeks, I went out with my team and fixed it. I always say, let’s not complain, let’s do something about it. Here you go. pic.twitter.com/aslhkUShvT— Arnold (@Schwarzenegger) April 11, 2023
As mentioned in last week’s roundup, it’s spring and that means it’s pothole season. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger took it upon himself to fix a “giant pothole” in his neighborhood. The actor and former California governor posted a video of the repairs, but it turns out he was patching a service trench being used by the gas company. His heart was in the right place, though. After months of rain in Southern California, the city of Los Angeles has received more than 19,600 pothole repair service requests since the end of December.
Government in Numbers
The number of times that the Muslim call to prayer can now be broadcast over speakers year-round. Minneapolis on Thursday became the first major American city to permit unfettered broadcast of the call to prayer. The city council voted unanimously to amend the city's noise ordinance, which had prevented some morning and evening calls at certain times of the year because they occurred at times of the day when tighter noise restrictions are in place.
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