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Kansas anti-abortion law: How divided can the states get?

States are in an ideological arms race, epitomized by dueling abortion bills floated by legislatures from Kansas to New York. Is this federalism on steroids?

By Staff writer / April 6, 2013

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback discusses tax and budget issues with reporters at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Brownback is defending his proposal to cancel a scheduled drop in the state sales tax to stabilize the budget while pursuing income tax cuts.

John Hanna/AP

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is set to sign a tough new anti-abortion law that says life begins at conception and bans sex-selection abortions. In response, states like Washington and New York are scrambling to reduce restrictions on the procedures, such as loosening rules around late-term abortions.

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The recent bipolar moves in Kansas and New York suggest that US states are increasingly leaving gridlocked Washington in the dust on policy ranging from abortion to marijuana, from immigration to guns. The result is a disparate patchwork of laws and policies that some suggest are beginning to turn America from a homogenous land of centrists and moderates into a partisan land of balkanized rules, economies, and lifestyles.

“There is nothing especially new about states going their own way,” New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote late last month. “We fought a civil war, after all. And we have become accustomed to categorizing states as red or blue, based on their electoral choices. But it feels as if every news cycle brings another seemingly random example of a state veering off the mainstream… What’s up with that?”

To be sure, the rise of the tea party movement has helped fuel a nearly unprecedented situation where 75 percent of US statehouses are under single party control even as Washington seems mired in perpetual partisan gridlock. The widening policy gap between states, too, comes against another backdrop: The decision by the Obama administration, particularly though Obamacare, to use states as proxies to install federal policy.

“This is an administration that doesn’t take the states and locals as it finds them. It has an agenda,” Paul Posner, a federalism expert at George Mason University in Virginia, has said, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yet while corralling states by dangling federal money may be in part successful, it hasn’t enabled the administration to end run its agenda around Congress.

Gun control is one example. While Washington has so far failed to pass post-Newtown gun control laws, a handful of liberal states in the Northeast have gone ahead with new restrictions, including expanded background checks. But 15 other states have loosened gun restrictions in the wake of the massacre. On Friday, the Kansas Senate passed legislation that would prevent federal agents from confiscating guns made in Kansas.

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