All Kinds Of Good News in Blue States
Minimum wage, criminal justice reform, health care, weed, and more!
Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!
Before we get to the main topic of today’s newsletter — more big progressive wins at the state level — here’s a quick note about the week to come:
On Tuesday, voters here in NYC will choose a Democratic mayoral nominee after an absurd six-month campaign that, because it was largely overshadowed by the city’s rebirth, may well end with a result that throws us into a different kind of disarray. It’s tense here!
While New Yorkers are casting their votes, the Senate will be voting to save American democracy altogether. Whether it’s the original S. 1 or a compromise based on Sen. Joe Manchin’s late-breaking compromise proposal, some version of For The People Act will come up for a procedural vote on Tuesday. And barring some miracle, that vote will fail due to a Republican filibuster.
After that, it will require a tidal wave of grassroots pressure to convince the caucus to reform the archaic and accidental procedural weapon in order to preserve free and fair elections. To be clear, failure is not an option — for us or for them. If Democrats stick with the filibuster over saving democracy and fulfilling promises, it would be a massive insult to the 80 million Americans who voted for them in November and the tens of millions more whose future depends on their actions. It could well mean the permanent fracturing of the party. You can read my take on what’s to come in this past Thursday’s premium edition of the newsletter, which I’ve opened up to everyone today.
I’d also recommend checking out this video with Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the leaders of the last-minute quorum break that temporarily prevented the passing the nation’s most egregious voter suppression bill. My colleagues and I at More Perfect Union have been working closely with Rep. Martinez Fischer’s office over the last few weeks, and in this new video, he details the long conversation he had with Sen. Manchin’s chief of staff last week and what he thinks it portends for the future of voting rights:
OK, now let’s get to some good news — really! There’s actually a lot of good news to report this weekend!
But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Susan and Matthew!
Blue States Enact Historic Progressive Legislation In 2021
Democratic senators’ infuriating refusal to nix the filibuster and pass super-popular legislation has raised the stakes for state legislatures, which right now represent the best chance to enact significant progressive change in this country. And thus far, blue state legislatures have been delivering under pressure, passing rafts of major new laws that are remaking economies and reining in historic abuses still on the books.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing about many of these new laws, given the attention that’s been focused on GOP state governments’ extremist policies on voting rights, their bad-faith freakouts about critical race theory, and their disgusting abuses of trans kids. But it’s important to make sure we celebrate the victories made possible by progressive activists, so with more states wrapping up their legislative sessions this month, it’s time to take another look at the many game-changing laws that have passed this year.
The first state to create a quasi-public option this year and second overall behind Washington State in 2019, Nevada’s new program takes a very cautious approach to reform and accessibility.
The new law, which goes into effect in 2026, will feature public-sponsored plans operated by private insurance companies. Those plans will have to have premiums at least 5% lower than a median private plan, but they won’t be able to pay providers less than prevailing Medicare rates. These “public” plans will be targeted at low-income residents and small businesses that can’t afford larger plans. The goal is for the plans to ultimately charge at least 15% less than the average market plan.
After an attempt to create a true public option was scuttled by the record health care industry lobbying, Colorado Democrats passed a version that is more like a highly regulated private option. Within three years, these plans must have premiums at least 15% lower than other commercial plans. The law passed a week after Nevada’s plan, making Colorado the third state to have a quasi-public option, as Washington launched its own in 2019.
The legislature also created a prescription drug review board, which can look into and cap the price of up to a dozen medications per year (chosen from a much larger list), and authorized the importation of prescription drugs from countries beyond Canada.
Having expanded Medicaid in 2014, the legislature this year expanded the post-partum coverage for new mothers from 60 days to an entire year.
The legislature earlier this month submitted a budget proposal that looked very much like the one put forward by Gov. Gavin Newsom, so while nothing has been signed into law just yet, there are several policies that are very likely to be green-lit within the next few weeks. There were also a number of big policy gains made in 2020 that went into effect this year that are worth highlighting.
Both the legislature and Newsom’s budget proposals would make undocumented immigrants eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. This would be a major advancement in the social safety net in the world’s fifth-largest economy. The only question is how many people will be invited to enroll — Newsom’s proposal called for undocumented immigrants aged 60 and up to be made eligible, while the legislature suggested 50 and older.
It’s not a done deal yet, but last week, the Maine State Senate passed a package of bills that would create accountability mechanisms for drug companies that overcharge for prescription drugs. Together, the bills known as Making Health Care Work for Maine would allow the state attorney general to bring action against companies that price gouge, create fines for unjustified price increases, and demand more transparency in the process.
Just wanted to highlight that New York Democrats had seemingly enough votes to pass the New York Health Act, which would have created a single-payer health care plan, but leadership just didn’t hold a vote on it. Still more work to do here.
While the big story this year has been Republican states’ relentless attack on voting rights, the polar opposite has been happening in many blue states.
In 2020, most of the states that did not permit no-excuse absentee voting under normal circumstances made temporary exceptions due to the Covid-19 crisis. The new flexibility offered to voters helped fuel record election turnout, and this year, many state legislatures have moved to lock-in universal vote-by-main for the long haul.
With both chambers of the legislature voting in consecutive sessions to create same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee balloting, all that’s left is for voters to approve of the two new features in November ballot referenda that are almost certain to pass.
The good news is that up to 35,000 parolees will be able to vote in those referendums thanks to a new law that automatically returns the right to vote to people after they’ve finished their prison sentences.
Thanks to the passage of a joint resolution of the state legislature, when voters in the Nutmeg State will go to the polls on Election Day in November of 2022, they’ll be asked to decide on a constitutional amendment to establish early voting in future elections. They will likely vote in 2024 on establishing no-excuse absentee voting.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed two important measures this spring. First, he green-lit the establishment of nine days of in-person early voting, and second, he OK’d a law that gives county boards of elections the power to choose locations for ballot drop boxes. New Jersey has long been stingy with voting opportunities, so these two bills are very big deals.
Go figure: The former capital of the Confederacy passed its own Voting Rights Act this spring, reviving many elements of the landmark national legislation that once kept a tight leash on Virginia’s election laws. Signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in April, the law creates voter protections against discrimination based on race, color, and language. It also includes a sort of pre-clearance on the state level for local governments that want to make major decisions that could effectively gerrymander or dilute power based on those categories.
This state VRA is no outlier, either, as it follows up on key laws passed in 2020 that repealed Virginia’s voter ID law and created a 45-day early voting period.
Like Virginia, the Prairie State (a nickname I just learned) this year passed a huge package of election reforms that together significantly expand access to the ballot.
HB 1871, signed by Gov. JB Pritzker, makes Election Day in November a state holiday, creates a permanent vote by mail list, allows for the placement of ballot drop boxes, and makes the curbside voting system created for 2020 a permanent feature. It also authorizes counties to provide secure ballot drop boxes.
In Cook County, where Chicago is located, jails already provide opportunities for those awaiting trial to cast their ballots. The new law would mandate that every other country provide the same service.
Full mail-in voting has been extended to the entire state again this year as a Covid-19 precaution. Incidentally, that includes the recall election of Gov. Newsom, when high turnout would be optimal for the incumbent.
In early May, the Democratic legislature passed a new law that made univeral mail-in voting a permanent feature of hte state’s democracy. In early June, Republican Gov. Phil Scott decided to sign it into law.
As in Vermont, the temporary universal mail-in voting system installed during Covid-19 has been cemented as a permanent feature. Now, every Nevada voter will receive a ballot in the mail before each election.
With national Democrats failing miserably to raise the minimum wage in Congress, legislators in a number of states decided to take action themselves. In other states, the minimum wage continued to rise in pursuit of the $15-an-hour goal laid out in previously approved legislation.
Stepping in for new Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Gov. Daniel McKee signed a law that raises the current $11.25 minimum wage in phases until it hits $15-an-hour in 2025.
After both of the state’s Democratic US Senators voted against a $15 minimum wage, their counterparts in the Delaware legislature showed them up by enacting that exact policy statewide. As in Rhode Island, the wage will hit $15 in 2025.
Nearly 90 years after Southern racists forced a compromise in the New Deal that created a two-tier system of workers’ rights, Colorado evened things out for agricultural workers with a bill of rights that guarantees them overtime pay and paid time off.
In a similar vein, Oregon’s legislature is working on a bill that guarantees overtime to agricultural workers, requiring that they earn time and a half after 40 hours in a week. The bill’s likely demise has led to a new wrinkle that would see the state pay that overtime. We’ll see what happens.
Criminal Justice Reform
Bills signed into law on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, SB 50 and AB 58, should add at least a bit of accountability to law enforcement.
SB 50 severely limits law enforcement’s use of no-knock warrants while AB 58 allows the state attorney general to investigate government agencies (including police departments) or individuals suspected of a pattern of civil rights abuses. The legislature also banned so-called “ghost guns.”
The Democratic legislature focused heavily on police reform this term, resulting in a slew of new laws meant to hold officers culpable for their conduct on the job.
HB 1267 creates an Office of Independent Investigations to look into each and every instance in which a police officer uses deadly force. There will be more to investigate, too, thanks to a number of other new laws governing specific police behaviors.
HB 1310 raises the threshold on responsible use of force, demanding officers take more precautions and de-escalate situations when possible. HB 1054 includes a broad array of important regulations, including a ban on chokeholds, neck restraints, and no-knock warrants. It also places limitations on the use of military weapons and tear gas. SB 5066, meanwhile, requires officers to step in when a fellow cop is using too much force.
These new provisions were given teeth with SB 5051, which makes major changes to the police decertification process, including the expansion of the offenses that can lead to an officer’s termination.
A number of major bills passed last fall in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests became law this March.
The laws include a ban on most no-knock warrants and neck restraints (i.e. chokeholds). The state is also forcing police officers to go through mandatory training on de-escalation and racial sensitivity, making it easier for officers to be decertified after wrongdoing, and requiring them to intervene when colleagues are violating rules.
The state also finally abolished the death penalty.
A number of new reforms intended to improve life for the formerly (and often unfairly) incarcerated, reduce prison sentences, and improve conditions for inmates made it through the legislature and earned the signature of Gov. Ned Lamont.
Most prominent is SB 1019, a clean slate law that erases misdemeanor and low-level felony convictions from people's criminal records after a certain amount of time. The legislature also passed a bill that makes it easier for current inmates to appeal for a sentence reduction, in some cases eliminating the requirement that they get permission from a prosecutor to do so.
The Democratic supermajority and trifecta delivered on criminal justice reform, too. Gov. Pritzker signed a package of laws that together touch on nearly every aspect of the state’s criminal justice system.
Perhaps most notably, the bill phases out cash bail, ending it for good in 2023. With 90% of the state’s jail population there awaiting trial, the new law will go a long way toward freeing those who have not been convicted of crimes. It also reforms the state’s controversial (read: awful) murder law that allows someone to be charged with first-degree murder if someone dies during a crime they commit; in most places, that would be manslaughter. Further, it allows for the circumvention of mandatory minimums for drug, theft, and other non-violent charges.
The package goes a long way toward reining in state police, in part by making it easier for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board to investigate (and potentially decertify) cops even if they aren’t charged with a crime. It also bans chokeholds and requires body cameras on all cops by 2025.
Democrats in the legislature passed a major criminal justice reform omnibus bill that was signed into law by GOP Gov. Charlie Baker. Bipartisanship!
The new law contains a number of important provisions, including the elimination of mandatory and statutory minimums for low-level and non-violent drug offenses, reduce solitary confinement, and raise the age of criminal responsibility from seven (seven!) to 12 years old.
With a supermajority in the state legislature, Democrats pursued a number of criminal justice reform bills this year. The most significant one they passed was the “Less Is More” Act, which prevents parole officers from sending parolees back to the slammer for technical infractions like a curfew violation.
The legislature also passed a ban on solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. The bill also creates a screening process for suicide risks.
Progressives and criminal justice reform advocates were unable to win passage of a more substantive bill, the Clean Slate Act, which would have sealed the records of certain misdemeanor offenders after three years and some felony offenders after seven years.
A suite of new bills passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Jared Polis aims to reform the state’s prison system as well as the unfair and inequitable punishments prescribed in more punitive eras. Some of the most significant bills failed in committee after a rise in crime during 2020, though much of that stemmed from desperation and poverty.
Among the laws that did pass this session were HB 1211 and HB 1251, which put limits on the use of solitary confinement and sedatives on prisoners and suspects, respectively. SB 271 and SB 124 reduce prison sentences and penalties for misdemeanors and murder, respectively, with the latter ending life in prison without parole in favor of 16-48 year sentences. And HB 1314, law enforcement and local governments are barred from stripping people of their drivers’ licenses or state IDs as punishment for not paying court fees, underage drinking, or other minor offenses.
This is about as Jersey as it gets. The Democratic legislature had agreed with Gov. Phil Murphy on a bill that would have ended mandatory minimum prison sentences on many nonviolent drug and property crimes, but at the last moment, a state senator with skin in the game inserted a provision that would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct, which governs penalties handed down to corrupt politicians, cops, and other public officials.
Murphy wound up vetoing the bill as a result, but Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued orders that effectively enshrined the law by directing prosecutors to follow most of its directives.
Seeing the writing on the wall, law enforcement leaders in the state got behind a new program that will put body cameras on every officer by 2023. Amazing what happens when progressives start to take over a legislative chamber that was long dominated by right-wing Democrats.
The legislation still needs to be wrapped up and signed, but the state is on the verge of closing its final juvenile justice center and ending cash bail for minor crimes. Between 60 and 80% of those in jail awaiting trial are stuck there because they can’t afford to pay the bail charge, which for a Class E crime averages just short of $725.
Financial & Taxes
Between the New Democratic supermajority, the inequality underscored and worsened by the pandemic, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous and scandal-plagued spring, the conditions were finally right to pass a huge progressive taxation and redistribution package financed by (modest!) tax increases on New York’s uber-wealthy.
The package passed by the legislature and ultimately signed by Cuomo included a historic fund for low-income workers excluded by the national stimulus packages and unemployment bonuses. I spoke with leading progressive State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and wrote in detail about the whole package in detail in April.
Long hampered by an old state Supreme Court decision that forced a flat tax on the state’s residents, Washington’s legislature got around the artificial judicial limit by imposing a 7% tax on capital gains over $250,000. The tax, which will undoubtedly be the subject of courtroom wrestling, would raise about $415 million a year, which the state’s Democrats want to put toward education.
At the other end of the spectrum, the legislature also enacted a working families tax exemption, which will give up to 420,000 residents a partial refund on sales tax. Individuals without kids may receive up to $300 while parents of three kids are eligible for $1200.
A huge surplus is being put to good use this year, with an expansion of the social safety net that supplements stimulus payments made by the federal government. This February, the legislature approved of Gov. Newsom’s “Golden State Stimulus” plan, which sent one-time payments of $600 to $1200 to low-income Californians, and now Democrats there are working to send similar checks to middle-class families that make up to $75,000 a year.
The legislature’s budget also proposes sending $550 million in food assistance for low-income Californians, regardless of their immigration status.
Like Washington, Massachusetts is a liberal state with a regressive flat tax. To address the inequity and raise money, the legislature this year passed the “Fair Share Amendment,” which will add a 4% surtax on income surpassing $1 million if voters approve the measure when they vote in November of 2022.
It’s been another historic year for the marijuana legalization movement. Marijuana was legalized, with varying levels of accompanying social justice-minded reparations and acknowledgments of the egregiously racist legacy of the war on drugs.
Voters in New Jersey approved legal recreational weed in November, but it took a hard-fought agreement between the legislature and Gov. Murphy this year to implement it. New York also legalized recreational marijuana, as did Connecticut, Virginia, and New Mexico. Democrats in Delaware are working to overcome its buzzkill governor’s opposition to legalized recreational marijuana.
In Maine, meanwhile, the state legislature just passed a bill to decriminalize all drugs, though Gov. Jane Mills opposes such a ground-shifting reform.
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