The little dictators in Missouri that could make history

A truly inspiring story of aspirational evil

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

It’s a beautiful day here in New York City, so much so that during a long walk through the Lower East Side this morning, I almost forgot that the next few months will likely determine whether the United States continues on as a representative democracy or slides further into oligarchy. The fresh air is revivifying!

There’s a lot to cover today, so let’s jump right to it!

In the four decades since Ronald Reagan convinced Americans that austerity was the key to prosperity and fully aligned government with the interests of big business, the Republican Party has tirelessly pursued policies that demolish the social safety net and punish poor and working-class Americans. Now, in an evolution that coincided with and was hastened by Donald Trump’s four years in office and sustained post-presidential meltdown, the GOP has also set its sights on dismantling democracy itself.

With Republicans out of power in DC, the task of ending representative democracy has fallen to GOP-controlled state governments, which are stocked with far-right true believers eager to do their part to ensure autocracy. Republicans in Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and Florida have certainly delivered, stoking national outrage with each voter suppression bill they’ve passed. Far less fanfare has surrounded the low-key GOP trifecta in Missouri, but on Thursday, Republicans there made Missouri the first state to pull off the new right-wing dual-track dream. 

In a letter to the federal government, Gov. Mike Parson officially canceled the Medicaid expansion that voters enshrined in the state constitution last summer, ratifying a cruel policy decision that punishes the poor and fully nullifies the results of a democratic election. As a result, between 230,000 and 275,000 people are at risk of not gaining access to health care while much of the state’s remaining democratic norms are at risk of falling.

Whether Republicans in Missouri get away with it will depend on a few key factors, but unless Parson reverses course by July 1st, the date on which the expansion is due to kick in, a court battle is likely to be involved.

“The question is going to be when someone who is [newly] eligible under the state constitution actually applies for Medicaid, does the government violate the constitution and deny them coverage? If that's the case, then that person would have a lawsuit against the state government to force expansion of Medicaid,” says Elan Gross, a civil rights attorney who works with the progressive community organization Take Back Missouri.

What happened?

Missouri’s traditional Medicaid program is unconscionably stingy. It bars all single, able-bodied adults from obtaining government health coverage, no matter how little money they make, and renders public insurance almost as unobtainable for families, cutting off access to families of three that take home more than 18% of the federal poverty line, or just over $5000 per year. 

In 2020, after nearly a decade of Republican refusal to expand the program under the generous conditions provided by the American Care Act, activists in Missouri took the matter directly to voters. Despite several conservative attempts to sabotage the ballot initiative, 53% of Missourians voted in favor of expanding the program to everyone who made under 138% of the poverty line, the latest in a string of progressive referendum victories in the increasingly solid red state. 

Gov. Parson was opposed to the expansion during the months leading up to vote, but he pledged to honor the outcome if voters disagreed and approved the referendum. His proposed budget this year followed through on his promise, as it included a $130 million request to fund the program. Given the state’s stimulus-funded surplus, it shouldn’t have been a heavy lift; with the $1.1 billion that Democrats’ American Rescue Plan offered to incentivize the dozen holdout states to finally expand the program, Missouri actually stood to make money on the deal, a win-win for bureaucrats and working people.

But the state House of Representatives, run by a very partisan Republican supermajority, pointedly declined to allocate the funding, citing very false financial concerns and nonsense about needing to protect constituents who they believe were “fooled” into voting for Medicaid expansion. After its leaders pledged to negotiate a budget that included the money for the health program, the state Senate opted to ignore the will of voters as well. 

“Because of term limits and because of the changes within the Republican Party, the fights that we end up having end up not being over policy or even politics,” Shawn D’Abreu, the policy director at the nonprofit advocacy group Missouri Health Care For All, told me last month. “It's more about this sectarian identity that one party is really fully embracing that says that they have the divine right of kings to rule and governance doesn't matter and any election that they lose doesn't matter.”

Parson initially sent a letter to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services with a formal request to expand the program anyway, which would have enabled the estimated 230,000-75,000 newly eligible to enroll in Medicaid as the constitution now demands. Advocates suggested that Missouri HealthNet, as it is known, could have started to serve the additional clientele with just the federal bonus money, which would have likely forced the legislature to ultimately relent and provide the rest of the funding.

Instead, the governor offered the same specious excuses about the prospective cost and argued that he was not authorized to execute the amendment’s expansion due to the lack of funding provision. 

Now What?

Gross’s grassroots group is working with a number of residents who should be newly eligible to enroll in the program and plan on applying for the promised health coverage on July 1st. If the state rejects their applications, Gross will be ready to file a lawsuit on their behalf.

“The initial phase is a petition and a complaint that says, ‘here are all the things that you've done wrong to me, now fix it,’ and then the government will have a chance to reply to that,” Gross explains. “It’s a pretty simple issue, so I would think it would get litigated relatively quickly, and then likely go to an appellate court before it's finally resolved.”

Resolution is likely to involve the Missouri State Supreme Court one way or another, which could work to the petitioners’ advantage. Along with the typical conservative talking points that Missouri Republicans have offered to justify their abandoning of poor and working people, they’ve also cited constitutional arguments that already failed last year when right-wing activists sued to block the initiative from appearing on the ballot last year.

“The constitution in Missouri doesn't allow somebody using an initiative petition to appropriate funds without creating a funding source,” Gross says. “The problem with that argument is that the Court of Appeals held, and then the Supreme Court agreed, that the problem with that argument was that nowhere in the Medicaid expansion language for Missouri does it require an appropriation. Now an appropriation would make sense, but because [the initiative] doesn’t defund Medicaid for everybody who's been enrolled, it doesn't require an appropriation.”

A victory wouldn’t force create a separate fund for the expanded Medicaid population, but it would get them in the program and ultimately force the state’s hand on providing the money.

The stakes are high for the quarter-million people who would finally be able to see a doctor without risking deep financial precarity, but there’s also a lot on the line for American democracy generally. As the GOP escalates its open assault on representative democracy, the outcome could signal just how far Republicans can go in their desire to fully nullify elections.

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!

Ballot Initiatives

Mississippi: A day after Gov. Parson issued the letter that nullified the Medicaid expansion initiative, the Mississippi’s state Supreme Court did him one better and threw out the state’s entire ballot initiative process. In doing so, the court invalidated the successful medical marijuana initiative that passed with 72% of the vote last year.

The right-wing court’s justification was pretty farcical. In short, the ballot initiative process originally called for activists to get a certain number of signatures from all five of the state’s congressional districts, but now that Mississippi only has four districts, they insist that the whole thing is invalid, as if the number of districts was key to the process. The ruling gets dumber and dumber the more you dig into it.

This is a very serious blow to the broad coalition of activists and interest groups that were teaming up to pass a Medicaid expansion initiative in 2022, and it’s yet another tough break for the state with the highest poverty numbers in the country.

Arizona: Here’s a bit of more hopeful news. The remarkable grassroots groups that turned Arizona blue on the national level are now working on a ballot initiative that if passed would allow immigrant students with Dreamer protection to attend public college at in-state tuition rates.

The progress this represents is somewhat remarkable and inspiring — it was only a decade ago that Arizona passed the infamous “Show Me Your Papers” law that gave maniacs like former Sheriff Joe Arpaio to harass and imprison immigrants and other Hispanic immigrants with near impunity. Yes, the Arizona GOP has again been seized by brain rot, and yes, it just passed a law that could kick 130k Arizonans off the mail-in voter list, and yes, it’s running a circus disguised as a ballot “audit,” and yes, it’s trying to hijack and rig the redistricting process, but its power is diminishing with every election.

Texas: A few weeks ago, a local ballot initiative in San Antonio that would have seriously weakened police unions (and thereby create much harsher consequences for the “bad apple” cops that abuse and murder people) fell short by just a point. As you could have probably guessed, it was the wealthier voters in the more suburb-adjacent areas of the city, people far less likely to get choked to death by a police officer, who provided the votes to kill the referendum.

Voting Rights

Georgia: Sara Tindall Ghazal was nominated today to serve as the state Democratic Party’s representative on the State Election Board. The Democratic Party’s former voter protection director and a legislative candidate in 2020, Tindall Ghazal is a fierce voting rights advocate and a friend of the Progressives Everywhere newsletter. We supported her during her run for the state House in 2020 and she has been incredibly helpful in my coverage of the Georgia GOP’s assault on voter rights this year. Exciting stuff!

For the People Act: The Senate marked up the crucial voting rights bill last week, a day-long ordeal that proved to be every bit of a shit show as you’d expect. Mitch McConnell made a rare appearance to urge his colleagues to allow state Republicans to snuff out democracy, and at the end, the committee deadlocked 9-9 on whether to advance it to the floor. It’ll take a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to move it forward to an even more uphill grind.

In short, Sen. Joe Manchin (and several other lawmakers who are using the nation’s most gullible senator as cover) are not into a fair number of the provisions in the For the People Act, even after markup addressed a lot of the technical issues that election administrators raised about them. While members of the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed concern about the possibility of losing Black-majority districts, my guess is that some Democratic senators are not into the strict limits the bill puts on fundraising and lobbying.

Raising money is one of the prime functions of elected officials and those in national office often get there because they’re very good at raising money. When they leave office, many of those same lawmakers become lobbyists for interest groups and corporations (including many Democrats!), and legislative staffers often cash in on their connections after a few years on the low-pay grind of government. Any law that limits the advantage that good fundraisers have and restricts their future earning potential is going to be hard to pass so long as we have these transactional vampires in office.

For now, Manchin says he supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a much more minor bill that simply reinstates the pre-clearance that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. It’s supposed to be a complementary law, at risk of future SCOTUS repealing, though if Manchin wasn’t just garbling his words and meant that it really should apply to all 50 states, it could wind up being an effective and permanent measure.

Unfortunately, if some version of the For the People Act doesn’t pass, Democrats are likely going to be out of power for a long time and elections are going to become more and more expensive.

Hopefully, every reticent Democrat reads this story and watches this video:

Workers’ Rights

“Labor Shortage”: There are now 18 states that have moved to cancel the expanded unemployment benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan before they expire in September. President Joe Biden did not do workers any favors by warning that people abusing the unemployment benefits would be found and penalized, a comment that seemed to have come from the neoliberal dragon still lodged deep inside of him.

The unemployment cancellation is a clear ploy to force people back into shitty jobs for shitty poverty wages — these GOP states still largely run on the shameful bare-bones federal minimum wage — and a preview of the old school campaign that the GOP is going to wage against Biden and Democrats in 2022. It would be nice to see Biden challenge these unemployment benefits cancellations and show the country that Democrats are on the side of workers, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Even so, Democrats need to make a huge deal out of this blatant collusion between business and the GOP. The next year and a half needs to be about hammering home how different the two parties are when it comes to economic policy and the exploration of working families. The Liz Cheney saga and the GOP’s larger fealty to Trump should not be the focus. Many tens of millions of people don’t just like Trump, they love the guy. He commands the kind of loyalty that Democrats, save perhaps Bernie Sanders, could only dream of inspiring.

Using Trump as a foil will only excite the right-wing and drive their turnout. And yet, because they exist in a gilded bubble, are relentlessly asked about it, and it doesn’t cost them anything with corporate sponsors, Democrats look to be headed down that road.

Forgetting Trump, raising the minimum wage, passing a huge infrastructure bill, and fixing voting rights will give Democrats the best chance of holding on to power next year. Ironically, from what I’ve seen — and I watch this stuff for a living now — no Democrat has been better at explaining and hyping up the benefits of the American Rescue plan than Joe Manchin, who holds local town halls and posts videos multiple times a week that tout the various cash and relief programs now available to West Virginians.

Minimum Wage: Manchin often gets asked about the minimum wage during the aforementioned town halls, and the man’s response is almost verbatim each time: States like West Virginia can’t afford to have a $15 minimum wage and that he thinks it’s reasonable to raise the minimum wage to $11-an-hour and then index it to inflation. He also wants the tipped minimum wage to be about half of that.

Even if he ultimately moves on voter rights and makes an exception for the filibuster, I don’t see ol’ Joe budging on this one, so while I’m loath to say this, I think Democrats should work with Manchin’s terms and take the deal sooner rather than later, perhaps putting it in the infrastructure bill. With so many Republican states forcing people back to work in shitty minimum wage jobs, it’d be great to get people significant raises.

It’s important to remember that the minimum wage doesn’t just impact teenagers and undocumented immigrants. In fact, there are more workers aged 55 and up toiling for minimum wage than teenagers doing the same.

Pennsylvania: The employees at Bleyer Industries, the only company that still makes Halloween spider-webs and Easter grass, have gone on strike to demand better compensation. The average wage at the factory is just $8.50 and many are stuck at the $72.5 minimum wage.

Don’t Mess With Scabby: The inflatable rodent that unions so often prop up at the picket lines was nearly exterminated by Trump’s NLRB chief counsel, but Biden’s decision to can the guy on inauguration day gave the rat a lifeline. It’s looking increasingly likely that Scabby will survive this ordeal, so why not learn all about the solidarity rat?

  • After the success of Stockton’s universal basic income pilot program, the idea is starting to spread to other cities across the country, including Los Angeles. California Gov. Gavin Newsom also wants to put $35 million towards helping other cities pilot their own programs.

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a horrible anti-protest law last month. Here’s a guide to what it actually means and how people can still protest in the state.

  • Pennsylvania continues to be an important swing state and political bellwether, so this wide-ranging conversation with different voters from across the state is very much worth reading.

  • The Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana. Its fate is uncertain.

  • Buncha racist killjoys in South Jersey are rushing to ban weed despite the fact that it is now legal in the state. I can promise you that nothing can curtail weed smoking at the Jersey Shore.

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