All Eyes on the Suppression Session

Dispatches from the latest battle

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

The streets and several subway stations flooded here in New York City last week, an event that forced locals to deal with a torrent of pungent toxic waste. This week, Hillbilly Elegy author, Peter Thiel pet project, and Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance will be fundraising in New York City, bringing with him an even more pungent stream of toxic waste. Wish us luck!

This week’s edition of Progressives Everywhere focuses once again on Texas, where Republicans just convened a special session of the legislature aimed at passing their failed voting rights law and scoring some bigot points for the state’s governor. After we examine the battle down in the Lone Star State, we’ll look at some news and important upcoming events.

But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Melody and Dave!

A special session of the Texas legislature was gaveled in on Thursday, starting a period of up to 30 days in which the two chambers can tend to unfinished business as specified by Gov. Greg Abbott. Facing two primary challenges from his right flank, including one by former Texas Republican Party chair and disgraced military officer Allen West, Abbott is seeking to burnish his right-wing credentials on both major issues and culture war garbage.

At the very top of Abbott’s prescribed agenda is passing a new iteration of the racist voter suppression bill that was thwarted by a surprise walk-out by Democratic House members as the regular session came to a close at the end of May. Had it been passed, the final version of that bill would have created the nation’s most extreme anti-voter law, and instead of seeking some sort of compromise after more than a month of public shaming, Republicans decided to double down and introduce an even more restrictive and overtly racist bill.

SB 1 and HB 3 contain nearly all the provisions of the scuttled bill as well as a few new clauses, while one of them also includes a monthly voter purge that would undoubtedly kick people of color off of the voter registration lists. The House bill includes a clause that would make it a felony to help a third party group distribute absentee ballot applications, and both bills require voters to include a driver’s license number or social security number in their request for a mail-in ballot. The bans on drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting are also back, while more rural (ie Republican-leaning) jurisdictions would be required to increase the number of early voting hours. Convenient, right?

On Saturday, over 300 Texan citizens lined up in the State Senate to comment on the bill. The hearing lasted well past midnight and featured everyone from legal experts and advocates to concerned citizens; they were, by a wide margin, very much opposed to the proposed restrictions. Republican senators seemed disinterested in the potent mix of emotional and legal testimony — they gave former Rep. Beto O’Rourke a hard time, but mostly out of obligation — and are moving closer to passing it out of committee.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who was a major player in that initial walkout, called this extra month of legislature the “suppression session” in an interview with Progressives Everywhere late Thursday night. Geared up from a day of rallies and protests, Martinez Fischer said that Democrats wouldn’t rule out another late-night escape to break quorum if it could help their cause.

“All of our tools are on the table,” he said. “The issue of us having a quorum is embedded in our Texas constitution, so for folks who criticize our use of the quorum, the issue is really better directed at our Texas constitution, because that's a constitutional right that we have. We'll put all those tools on the table and we will use them if necessary.”

Martinez Fischer was one of a number of Texas Democrats who went to Washington, DC to meet at the Capitol with Democratic senators after the first walk-out in hopes of rallying them to meet the moment. While saying that he found a largely receptive audience for his appeals, Martinez Fischer didn’t rule out a return to DC to further prod those still unwilling to reform the filibuster in order to save voting rights.

“I'm not Pollyanna here, I can count and recognize that we are a minority party in a red Republican state that is changing,” the legislator admitted. “But unless and until that changes, we need the assistance of our federal partners and I think that the eyes of the nation continue to gaze on Texas.”

The Other Issues

The special session was prompted by Abbott’s need to pass the voter suppression law, but his agenda is chockful of other awful items. Other lowlights include a ban on teaching children about racism, a prohibition on trans kids competing in high school sports, and an Orwellian “bail reform” that does the very opposite.

The bail item will actually make it harder for many low-income people to avoid unnecessary incarceration, as it raises the bar on some costs and limits nonprofit bail funds’ ability to contribute to the release of those who have not been convicted of any crime. Though two Democrats at one point spoke in favor of the legislation, Martinez Fischer thinks that, as has been the case in a number of states, this could be an area where the two parties could come together to rework the law in a more progressive direction.

“You have a competing debate: On the one hand, you have Republicans that want to make it impossible for people to free themselves while they wait for trial on their charges. And on the other hand, we say that you shouldn't put a price on somebody's liberty,” he said. “If we all have this presumption of innocence, if we all have the same constitution and the right to be tried by a jury of our peers and have the state prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, then people shouldn't sit in jail because they don't have the money to bail themselves out. Your zip code or your income bracket shouldn't define whether or not you get the freedom.”

As for the anti-trans bill, Martinez Fischer noted that after a contentious debate, the legislature passed on considering it before the last session ended, a pointed rejection of the governor’s demand for state-sanctioned bigotry. Abbott put it back on the agenda to pad his right-wing credentials and create a “distraction” and “wedge issue,” the representative alleged.

Both of the bills authorizing attacks on schoolchildren are not just a distraction from the voting bill on the agenda, but also a distraction from what wasn’t on Abbott’s agenda: Fixing the deeply broken electrical grid that left millions of Texans powerless during a catastrophic deep freeze weather event over the winter, among other things.

“I never have constituents stop me in the grocery aisle and say, ‘You know, representative, we just haven't we haven't picked on immigrants enough and we haven't made it hard enough for women to make health care decisions, so we need you to go back to Austin and make things tougher,” Martinez Fischer said, exasperation showing. “What they talk about is fixing the damn electric grid so when we're sitting in 110-degree weather, they can go inside and have electricity and run their air conditioners. They talk to me about the fact that the governor is sitting on billions of dollars from the Biden administration he has refused to accept or is distributing in the slowest possible way.

“We have a Delta variant that's being taken so seriously across the country but we’ve yet to even start planning for it variant even as it’s infecting children in the state of Texas,” he continued. “These are the things that people talk to me about in the grocery store, these are the things that we should be working on. We shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars to finance Governor Abbott’s 2022 campaign for governor, but he is bringing us together so that he can beat his chest and out-crazy his Republican primary opponents.”

So What’s Next?

There is one issue on which legislative Democrats and Republicans stand united: Funding the legislature. When the session ended, Abbott line-item vetoed the money in the budget intended to pay legislators and everyone who works in the Capitol in Austin; while legislators don’t live on their part-time salaries, Abbott also withheld money for aides, administrators, and even janitorial and support staff, denying pay to workers who make an average of $52,000 a year.

The veto is currently being litigated in court while a bipartisan group works to restore the funding — as Martinez Fischer points out, Republicans have far more staffers, giving them every incentive to push back and secure the $410 million that Abbott withheld.

Unfortunately, that’s likely where the agreement between the two parties is going to end, and as the voter suppression bill gets closer, Martinez Fischer said Democrats may well have to pull the same move that led to Abbott’s budget veto in the first place. In pledging to protect democracy, he strikes a defiant tone that casts legislative Democrats as gunslinging heroes from old western movies who won’t go down without a fight.

“If it takes a band of ragtag Texas Democrats from the State House of Representatives to walk out and take our fight to Washington, DC and convince senators, whether it be Senator Manchin or Sinema or anybody else for that matter, that does not see the sense of urgency here, we're happy to bring our story to our nation's capital again,” he said. “This is a now-or-never moment for our country. And if we're gonna have voting rights reformed in this cycle, it's going to be done now.”

Programming note: After having to cancel our wedding and scrap our honeymoon plans after three different attempts to reschedule them, my wife and I are finally headed on a truncated and scaled-down (but still exciting!) trip to mark what is now 15 months of marriage.

We consider ourselves remarkably lucky to have gotten through Covid otherwise relatively unscathed and know that we are extremely fortunate that we’re in a position to even take any vacation at all. So, in an effort to really soak in and appreciate the opportunity to spend a little time away, I will not be sending a newsletter at all the week of July 18th (unless something giant news breaks, of course).

We will return to the regular Progressives Everywhere schedule, with both public and premium newsletters, starting on July 25th. I appreciate your patience and support!

Reminder: I cover lots more news, keep up on these stories, and publish interviews throughout the week in the issues sent out to premium members!

Health Care

Ohio: Last week, we highlighted some of the most cynical and dangerous aspects of the Ohio GOP’s newly enacted state budget. Well, here’s a little something buried inside that budget that’s worth celebrating: New mothers in Ohio are now eligible to keep their Medicaid coverage for an entire year. Texas expanded it to six months in late May while South Carolina lawmakers are looking to offer a full year.

This is a growing trend amongst red states that otherwise refuse to take vast federal incentives to provide health care to more low-income residents. Of course, the money to expand the coverage to new mothers also comes from the federal government via the American Rescue Plan, but it isn’t so overtly linked to Obamacare, so Republicans are more willing to throw a bone to their poor constituents.

Missouri: Speaking of red states that refuse to provide health care to working people, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments this week over whether lawmakers are obligated to respect democracy and listen to the majority of voters who approved a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid last summer.

Organizations from across the political spectrum have been voicing their support for the expansion, including business groups like the Chamber of Commerce that generally don’t cross Republicans or advocate in favor of enhanced government involvement. Corporate lobbies have actually been very much in favor of Medicaid expansion, as it ensures hospitals get paid and tends to decrease poverty, which is good for business.

But don’t get too excited about this point of contention between businesses and Missouri Republicans, because they are still very much in cahoots. In fact, Gov. Mike Parson just signed a sweeping liability protection law that makes it nearly impossible to sue a business, place of worship, or health care provider for not taking enough precautions against Covid.

Corporate impunity is never a good thing, but this new law is especially pernicious. Missouri is currently being ravaged by the Delta variant because people there refuse to get vaccinated, thanks in part to a Republican cabal that continues to raise doubts about its efficacy and refuses to properly promote the vaccine.

Drug Prices: This may come as a shock, but it turns out that despite insisting that high drug prices are necessary to support crucial research and development, giant pharmaceutical companies actually spend more money on stock buybacks and executive compensation than they do on scientific inquiry and discovering new medications.

According to the data crunched by the committee, the 14 largest drug manufacturers paid themselves and investors $578 billion from 2016 to 2020 through dividends and stock buybacks, while investing $56 billion less — $522 billion — on research and development.

On top of that, the report says, some of that R&D money is spent researching ways to suppress competition, such as by filing hundreds of new, minor patents on older drugs that make it harder to produce generics.

President Biden’s antitrust order on Friday included a point that authorizes states to begin working on plans to import prescription drugs from Canada. Some states, including Colorado, already have it all worked out and were just waiting for that provisional green light.

Ballot Initiatives

Alaska: Voters authorized local ranked-choice voting last November. Now, a court will decide whether it will actually be enacted. This is a running theme!

Mississippi: It should come as no surprise that voters in Mississippi are overwhelmingly in favor of the restoration of the ballot initiative process that the state Supreme Court tossed out on a ridiculously specious technicality in June. Considering the vast voter suppression and how gerrymandered the state has been for years, the initiative process was the only real form of fair democracy left in the state.

Texas: Not all hope is lost in Texas! For example, our friends at Ground Game Texas, which aims to turn Texas blue by getting progressive policies on the ballot and then working to turn out the vote to pass them, are officially pursuing their first ballot initiative: Decriminalizing marijuana and ending no-knock warrants in Austin. It fits in well with their mantra: Workers, Wages, and Weed.

The organization needs to collect 25,000 signatures by July 20th to qualify the initiatives for the ballot in November. If you’re in Texas and want to volunteer to help out, you can fill out this form and someone with Ground Game Texas will get in touch with you.

Arizona: More ballot initiatives in the Grand Canyon State! The latest is a measure that, if approved, would repeal the horribly unequal “flat” tax cut that Republicans enacted to counteract another ballot measure, which was supposed to raise taxes on the rich to pay for education and was approved by voters last fall. If they gather enough signatures (and they will), this one will be put to voters in 2022.

In addition, some progressives are also now pursuing a ballot initiative that would repeal the recently passed voter suppression bill and revive the popular permanent mail-in voting list.

Another initiative would create some protections against debt collection and limit interest rates on medical debt.

Meanwhile, over in Tucscon, activists are working to place a minimum wage initiative on this November’s ballot. It proposes to raise the minimum wage in the city to $13 in April 2022 and then take it to $15 on January 1st, 2015.

Weed Watch

Virginia: Reefer is now officially legal in Virginia, and there’s no one more excited than the Marijuana Martyr. Sadly, that nickname is no joke.

New York: It smells even more like weed here now that it’s been legalized, and while I don’t love that scent, I rejoice at the fact that there’s nothing the cops can (legally) do about it.

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