If there really is going to be a “blue wave” this November, the result will be not just Democrats potentially taking control of one or both houses of Congress, but Democratic gains in state legislatures as well. And if Democrats find themselves in a stronger position at the state level, they’ll have an opportunity to move the country in a dramatically more progressive direction.
In order to take full advantage of that opportunity — the way Republicans have in recent years — they have to not just win seats and control of chambers, they also have to know what they want to do with them. And this, to be frank, is something Democrats haven’t been all that great at articulating, at least not in an organized way that makes for a common agenda being implemented in multiple places at once.
Which is why the Center for American Progress, the most prominent Democrat-aligned think tank, released a report on Thursday entitled “Bold Ideas for State Action.” The report, which I got a look at before its release, is meant to provide a menu of policies that state legislators can pursue.
If nothing else, documents such as this remind us that the complaint that the Democratic apparatus doesn’t have an agenda, or is too focused on being anti-Trump, is completely bogus. Indeed, you’ve probably heard these kinds of proposals from Democrats many times before. To be clear, that’s not a bad thing; it shows the party has consistent beliefs and ideas about how to put those ideas into action. They have 11 different policy areas, but I’ll outline just a few to give you a flavor of their proposals, all of which concern potential state-level action:
Economy: Restore basic employee protections; expand apprenticeships; expand state earned income tax credits; establish wage boards; expand collective bargaining; fight anti-competitive practices; open markets; create a subsidized jobs program; strengthen retirement security.
Education: Raise teacher pay; move to a 9-to-5 school day; boost technical and workplace training; improve mental health services in schools; provide free community college; enhance adult education; implement a student-loan borrowers’ bill of rights; improve data systems to track higher education outcomes.
Health care: Implement bundled payments for all payers and global budgets for hospitals; expand home visiting services; combat misuse of opioids; enact price transparency and price gouging legislation for prescription drugs; preserve Affordable Care Act consumer protections; establish reinsurance programs to hold down premiums; create a Medicaid buy-in for workers with disabilities.
Restoring democracy: Limit special interest power; improve ethics and campaign finance requirements; require candidates to disclose tax returns; enact automatic voter registration; improve election security; restore citizens’ voting rights.
If you were a Democrat running for state representative somewhere, this could be valuable, since it seems pitched at about the level of detail usually demanded of candidates: meaty enough to offer some specifics if they’re pressed, but not so deep into the policy weeds that voters wouldn’t be able to follow along. In fact, any Democratic candidate could probably take these pages, copy and paste them into the “Issues” section of their website, and they’d be all set.
That may be more useful than it appears. It is important to realize that, even though state legislative races are getting more expensive and more nationalized, your average state representative doesn’t have a lot resources to analyze problems and devise creative solutions. In some places, the job is part-time, they have small staffs, and a lot of our collective policy energy is expended at the national level.
And action on the state level may be an important way to move in a progressive direction in the near future. Even if Democrats have a terrific election in November, they’ll have to wait for at least two years before they can actually put any of their ideas into action in Washington. They may be able to hamstring the Trump administration, but they won’t be able to see things like a higher minimum wage or health-care reforms passed into law at the national level.
In the meantime, policy will be made in the states, with dramatic consequences for Americans’ lives.
Here’s some new data from the Gallup-Sharecare Well Being Index that drives this point home. It finds that the uninsured rate is actually rising in 17 states:
Among the 17 states with meaningful increases, the uninsured rates for four states rose at least three percentage points: West Virginia, New Mexico, Iowa and Hawaii. The remaining states with statistically significant increases were Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
If Republicans in state governments get their way, the number of uninsured will continue to rise, particularly among the most vulnerable populations. The Trump administration is encouraging states to impose work requirements on Medicaid, which are designed to force recipients to navigate a bureaucratic maze and provide justification for throwing as many people off the program as possible. But the decision to do it happens state by state. And if Democrats can regain some ground on the state level, they can do more to prevent such policies, or even in some cases try to get states that haven’t yet done so to opt into the Medicaid expansion.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been moving aggressively in a progressive direction in states they already control. The Center for American Progress report details many things that have been proposed or implemented in places such as California, Oregon, or Massachusetts over the last few years — such as increasing their minimum wages, expanding voting rights, legalizing marijuana, and passing restrictions on guns, among other things.
The result is that we really are becoming two very different Americas, depending on who’s in charge in the state where you live.
But Democrats still do not have their act together when it comes to fighting on the state level, at least not to the degree Republicans do. In recent years, Democrats have told themselves time and again that they need a counterpart to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded organization that connects and coordinates state Republican legislators to advance a unified conservative agenda across the country. Every couple of years, some Democrats create a new organization they claim is going to be their version of ALEC, but those groups never have quite the same success.
Nevertheless, it sends an important signal when an influential group like the Center for American Progress puts at least some of its focus on state government. As difficult as it is to get people to look away from Washington while President Trump is in office, the states are where most of the policy action is going to be in the near future. Which is another reason the stakes in this fall’s elections are really, really high.