Progress Report: Democratic Legislators Making Solid Gains in Health Care, Voting Rights

Under the radar, some big wins are stacking up

Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!

Clocks sprang forward today with the arrival of Daylight Savings Time, an institution that is wildly unpopular, no longer serves a useful purpose, makes us slightly more tired and unhealthy, could easily be undone but is seemingly intractable due to a collective inertia and deference to inane and harmful traditions. It’s like the filibuster, but for time!

But don’t worry — this isn’t going to be a newsletter filled with bummer news about all the stubborn problems we face or the considerable forces conspiring to make them worse. In fact, today’s edition of Progressives Everywhere is all about the progressive things being done in states across the country.

But first, thank you to our latest crowdfunding donors: Tim and Frances!

Where States Are Making Important Progress on Urgent Issues

After the 2016 election, when Republicans gained control of both the entirety of the federal government and a vast majority of statehouses and local governments nationwide, it finally got through to Democrats that leadership’s long-term neglect of everything other than presidential politics had been a ruinous strategy that necessitated a clear change in direction and priorities.

The newly activated grassroots went to work, quickly building infrastructures that in 2018 flipped legislatures, retook governors’ mansions, and busted GOP supermajorities in more deeply red places. (Long-time subscribers of this newsletter donated and helped make many of those wins possible.) And though Democrats didn’t make nearly as many gains in 2020 due to harder targets and gerrymandering, the balance of power in legislatures is far closer to even than it was in early 2017. Further, many of Democrats’ gains have been won by women and people of color, creating more diversity in chambers that have been blindingly white throughout their histories.

As a result, while Democrats have a trifecta in Washington, DC, there are plenty of state governments controlled by the party that are not waiting for the federal government to swoop in with giant fixes to urgent problems. Many legislatures have been in session for more than two months now and have begun to take action on significant bills, some of which have already been signed into law by governors. Even Republican-held legislatures have in some places started moving toward more progressive solutions on certain matters, cognizant of the shifting political grounds and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“State legislators combined consider over 100,000 bills a year,” Neha Patel, a co-executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, tells Progressives Everywhere. “In 2018, there was aggregate data that we had done that showed that legislators control about $2.4 trillion in annual state expenditures, which impacts every aspect of daily life. And while we tend to focus on the federal, there’s so much happening on the state level, so much is moving.”

Let’s take a look at some of the wins and potentially soon-to-come wins still to come as many legislatures hit the halfway mark of their sessions. (Note: The following is just a sampling of all the important bills working their way through legislatures — we’ll continue to follow these and more during the premium weekday editions of this newsletter!)

Health Care

The pandemic fully exposed just how fundamentally broken the United States health care system has become. The cost and availability of care, the distribution of medical supplies, the price of prescription drugs — it’s all a mess. The rise of hospital monopolies, the exploitative nature of health insurers, and business practices of pharmaceutical giants are all root causes that largely need to be dealt with by the federal government, but states can still have a big impact with the right policies.

Colorado: Last week, Democratic legislators introduced a bill that would create a state prescription drug price advisory board, which would have the power set price limits and recommend future policy to lawmakers. The bill is supported by Gov. Jared Polis, who will be running for re-election in 2022.

Having already passed a law authorizing reimportation of some prescription drugs from Canada after assuming complete control of the state government in 2019, Democrats are also now working to pass authorization to reimport drugs from select other countries, as well. The fear is that Canada could set restrictions on exports in order to ensure its own steady supply, so adding in other countries gives the state more options.

Reimportation could only be implemented if approved by the federal government; right now, the Biden administration is reviewing the policy, which had been stopped by judges after the Trump administration screwed up its attempt to make it happen.

Michigan: The state has largely been a battleground for intense partisanship over the last decade — you don’t get right-wing lunatics trying to kidnap the governor when the default tone is peaceful bipartisan cooperation — but health care has proven to be an exception this year. (That the GOP’s gerrymander will end with the next election thanks to independent redistricting may well have something to do with it.)

In late February, a bipartisan coalition in the state House introduced a big package of reforms that would cap prices on prescription drugs, expand out-of-network care and telehealth options, and crack down on bribes to doctors, among other items. Already, the bill to cap insulin prices at $50 a month for those in state-sponsored health plans has moved through the House’s Health Policy Committee, putting it on track for passage. The bill would provide about 200,000 Michiganders relief from soaring insulin prices.

Wyoming: The number of Americans on Medicaid shot up by 15.2% between March and December of 2020, a huge increase owing largely to the record job loss that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently 38 states that have expanded Medicaid under the terms laid out by the ACA; as part of the American Rescule Plan, the federal government has offered to subsidize 90% of the cost of expanded care incurred by the remaining states if they finally bite the bullet and decide to help people.

Instead of perennial swing states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, both of which have Democratic governors and newspapers begging GOP legislatures to take the $1.6 billion being dangled by Washington, it looks like Wyoming is going to be the first holdout state to take the bait. But the bill that made it through the Wyoming Senate Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee last week does have one important proviso: the state will only keep the program expanded so long as the federal government keeps that sweet, sweet subsidy number at 90%. (I’m sure that the 25,000 people who would get health care from the expansion will be pleased if and when it’s taken away from them based on a tweak to federal funding formulas.)

New Mexico: Having already expanded Medicaid under the ACA, the legislature is now working on a bill that would expand health insurance subsidies to lower-income New Mexicans who make incomes just above the cut-off line for the free federal program.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the bill, which adds a small surtax on insurance premiums to make up for the federal fee that expired last year. This should help 23,000 more people get affordable health coverage, which will bring down premiums for everyone in the state pool. The state House just passed the bill, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

lol I wonder why things are the way they are:

Voting Rights

As I’ve obsessively covered, voting rights are under attack in many Republican-controlled states. GOP legislators are attempting to resurrect Jim Crow in Georgia, lawmakers in Arizona and Florida trying to gut the popular vote-by-mail system, and Iowa Republicans have already passed major new restrictions. But let’s put those aside for just a moment and look at where the franchise has been or is in the process of being expanded.

“There’s a new attention on democracy issues and exactly how voting rights and access impacts people's ability to get policies passed, not just for the federal level, but at the state level,” Patel says. “There's a lot of public demand for thinking through those issues. In polling that we've done across the country, in various states and cross-state polls, it's actually something that's gaining increasing ground, because as people's literacy on this issue increases, they're holding their lawmakers accountable.”

Virginia: The headliner here, the Democrats in both chambers of the legislature have passed a new Voting Rights Act that is modeled in part on the landmark national legislation from 1965 that the Supreme Court continues to eviscerate. Once signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, it will create 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.

Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, authorized the mailing of absentee ballot applications to all voters for last fall’s general election. Now, Democrats in the legislature are in the process of creating a permanent vote-by-mail list for the state, which would require voters to opt in. (Republican lawmakers don’t like it, but they’re wildly outnumbered, so who cares?) It’s already passed the state House and is being considered by the Senate. There are other bills being examined as well, including ones that would expand early voting opportunities and give people a chance to cure problematic ballots.

Massachusetts: Both chambers of the state legislature have approved a bill that would extend universal mail-in voting and early voting opportunities through June to accommodate local elections. Once that’s signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, the legislatures will start working on making the extension permanent.

Vermont: Add another state to the list of those eyeing permanent mail-in voting, which could come in the state Senate this week.

Washington: A bill to automatically restore voting rights to people once they are released from prison, regardless of fines owed or parole terms set, passed the state House and is now being considered in the Senate.

Kentucky: Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, used his executive authority to restore about 100,000 formerly incarcerated Kentuckians’ right to vote upon taking office in 2019. Due to the state’s archaic and racist laws, there are still over 200,000 formerly incarcerated people without the right to vote, a disgrace that a new bipartisan bill would begin to ameliorate. If brought to the floor by the GOP leadership and then approved, it would create a ballot question that gives voters the final call on re-enfranchisement.

Workers’ Rights, Economics, and Money

Remember back during the early days of the pandemic, when people would clap at 7 pm to show appreciation for the essential and front-line workers that were putting their lives at risk in hospitals, nursing homes, and service industry jobs? And remember how big grocery chains were offering bonus hazard pay to their (often undocumented and non-unionized) employees? Those days are long gone; most chains stripped hazard pay by the summer, some stores have been shut down in response to rumblings about unionization, and Prop 22 put gig workers in more danger than ever.

On the bright side, some state legislatures are working to enact actual protections for workers of all kinds, but especially those who have been on the front lines for years and years, even before it was appreciated.

Minnesota: Meat packing plants were the an early hotbed of COVID-19 outbreaks, which in turn exposed the poor conditions and cruelty to which workers are exposed. A coalition of lawmakers and workers’ rights activists are trying to enact a new set of laws that would create new protections for workers at meat and other food processing plants. It made it through committee earlier this month and is working its way through the legislature.

New York: Like many states, New York is also moving forward on laws that create more workplace protections against COVID-19. While many people can work from home indefinitely, construction and service workers have been on the job for most of the pandemic.

Here in NYC, fast food employees have just gained essential protections that remove their “at-will” status, which allows a boss to fire you without just case.

Washington: As a New Yorker, I’m very jealous of this one. The Washington state Senate approved a capital gains tax on folks making over $250,000 a year last week, which would impact about 18,000 people and take in $500 million per year. It passed by just one vote and is headed to the state House. Gov. Jay Inslee supports the plan, which would levy a 7% tax on the sale of “stocks, bonds, and other high-end assets — like a classic car or painting — in excess of $250,000 for both individuals and couples.”

Washington right now has a remarkably regressive tax system because it relies only on sales tax — income taxes were ruled illegal unless uniform in the 1930s by the state Supreme Court. The state is home to a multitude of tech billionaires (like Jeff Bezos!) and has a large income disparity.

The capital gains tax would be used in part to fund more affordable child care, which is enormously expensive. It’s likely to go to the courts if it passes, though the state Supreme Court leans progressive.

Virginia: There are a flurry of new bills being considered in the Virginia legislature that would protect domestic workers and fight wage theft, which is a key priority of the state Attorney General, as well.

Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Wolf has begun the last seven years asking that the GOP-controlled state legislature raise the minimum wage from the national floor of $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour. He’s had no luck yet, but one Republican is touting a bill that would increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour (with a bump for the tipped minimum wage to $5 an hour). He said last week that he hadn’t discussed the matter with the House GOP caucus yet, though, so it’s unclear how far it will get.

Criminal Justice Reform and Discrimination

In many states, this is the first time that legislatures are either in session or able to consider brand new bills since the murder of George Floyd and the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. A new consciousness has arisen around these issues, leading to some policy breakthroughs.

Illinois: Despite all the internal dog fights happening within the state Democratic Party, the legislature and Gov. JB Pritzker were still able to make Illinois the first state to completely abolish cash bail. Better yet, that was just one element of a large package of criminal justice reform measures that also include “requiring police officers to be licensed by the state and to wear body-cams by 2025, expanding training opportunities for officers, making it easier to decertify police officers who commit misconduct, and improving a victims compensation program by making resources more readily available to survivors.”

Maryland: The state House passed a giant package of policing reforms and restrictions. Among other things, it would make it much more difficult for a cop to get a no-knock warrant (which could only be granted during the day), require body-cams for all officers by 2025 (lol), seriously limit the use of deadly force, create rigorous new training, create more intense background checks for hiring officers, ban the acquisition of insane weapons of war, and make it easier to fire violent and dangerous cops.

Minneapolis: While the city prepares for international attention on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the cop that murdered George Floyd, the city council is moving forward on a large transformation of its police department. In fact, the Transforming Public Safety Charter Amendment will end the police department as they know it, instead establishing a Department of Public Safety.

Texas: There’s even some support for police reform in the Lone Star State, including a ban on chokeholds and extending the list of offenses for which an officer could be canned. A dispute over matter of qualified immunity, which protects cops from lawsuits, is the real sticking point.

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