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Three Ground-Breaking Progressive Initiatives That Are Under the Radar This Election

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet

On November 8th citizens in 35 states vote on 163 ballot initiatives. They cover a wide range of subjects (e.g. marijuana, minimum wage, taxes, gun control). To my mind, initiatives in three states — California on reducing drug prices, South Dakota on revamping its political system, and New Mexico on the inequitable use of bail — stand out as having a potentially broad national impact.

California Takes on Big Pharma

Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that requires state agencies to pay no more for any prescription drug than the lowest price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the same drug. It would apply to more than 1 million state and public university employees as well as 3 million Medicaid patients (although it would exclude 10 million Californians on managed care Medicaid plans.)

Pharma Exec magazine warns its readers, passage of Proposition 61, “would shake the rafters of every single state drug program in the nation, as well as the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs.” It’s a warning well with heeding. Federal law entitles all state Medicaid programs to the lowest prescription drug prices available to most public and private payers in the U.S., excluding the VA.  Medicaid discounts ordinarily are in the 20 percent range, but VA discounts can be as high as 42 percent.  Thus the California measure could extend the VA’s low drug prices to Medicaid programs serving tens of millions of additional people nationwide.

As of October 20, pharmaceutical companies had spent more than $109 million to defeat the measure compared to just $15 million for supporters.  Nevertheless, the initiative appears headed to victory.

The pricing of drugs has become a national disgrace.  Horror stories abound. Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased the rights to a generic AIDS drug and promptly raises its price from $13.50 to $750 a pill.  According to Forbes, prices increased by 100 percent or more between 2013 and 2014, in 222 generic drug groups. Specialty drugs have become astronomically expensive. Reuters reports that in 2014, annual medication costs of 139,000 Americans exceeded $100,000, nearly triple the number who reached that level a year earlier.

The pharmaceutical industry is astonishingly profitable.  Median return on assets is more than double the rest of the Fortune 500, according to Alfred Engelberg.  The industry is awash in cash.  Pfizer holds $74 billion in unrepatriated profits overseas and Merck holds $60 billion, enough to fund their respective annual research budgets for 10 years.

While the industry reaps the financial benefits, the taxpayer bears much of the financial cost. Some observers calculate that direct and indirect government support is such that private industry pays only about a third of R&D costs.  Pouring salt in he taxpayers’ wounds, the government gifts these largely publicly funded drugs long-term patent protection. Which is one reason, as the Washington Post reports, drug companies focus on marketing, often spending $2 for marketing for every $1 spent on research.

Despite repeated scandals, the federal government has been unwilling or uninterested in stepping in. Congress hoots and hollers about the outrageous price hikes but specifically prohibits Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for price discounts.  Federal law allows the government to unilaterally lower the price of drugs developed with government funds when a company is gouging customers, but the Administration so far has refused to wield this power.  The government could also allow the import of less expensive equivalent drugs, but the Administration has refused to exercise this authority either.

Which leaves it up to the people to assert their own authority, in those states where this is possible. That’s what Californians have done.

South Dakotans take on the political establishment

South Dakotans will vote on three initiatives that, if taken together, could change the face of state politics.

Amendment V converts all state elections into nonpartisan contests. There would no longer be Democrat or Republican primaries. The top two finishers in the first round of voting would face off in the general election. California, Louisiana and Washington have similar run-off systems but in those states candidates still run with a party label.  That would be prohibited in South Dakota, making it the only state apart from Nebraska to have purely non-partisan elections. (Nebraska had its own political revolution in 1934 when its citizens rose up against an inefficient and unresponsive political system and voted not only to convert to nonpartisan elections but to introduce the nation’s first and only unicameral state legislature.)

Amendment T creates a commission to redraw state legislative districts every ten years when a new census comes out.  Ordinarily redistricting is done by legislators themselves, but as Matt Sibley, one of the organizers for Amendment T, told Governing Magazine,  “There is an inherent flaw in the system when legislators are picking out there own legislative districts.” In-house redistricting often results in a number of uncontested legislative races, diminishing the value of the franchise for those living in that district. The new commission will be barred from considering the party affiliation of voters and location of incumbent lawmakers when drawing new maps.

Measure 22 is the most complex of the three initiatives, requiring many changes to election law.  The most important is the creation of Democracy Credits.  Each registered voter will receive two $50 Democracy Credits they can donate to state legislative candidates who agree to participate in at least three public debates and cap the amount of private money they receive per contributor.  Democracy Credits, or Democracy Vouchers as they are sometimes called were first adopted in 2015 by initiative by Seattle voters. (Washingtonians are also voting on the issue. Initiative 1464 gives every registered voter three Democracy Credits of $50 to donate to state legislative candidates who agree to certain conditions.)

New Mexico takes on debtors’ prisons

In November New Mexico may become the first state to directly address a basic inequity of the justice system: the use of bail.

In 1987 the Supreme Court declared, “In our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” Nevertheless, in most of America, lower-income people who have been arrested and can’t afford bail sit in jail for weeks, months, even years before seeing a judge. Their involuntary incarceration can result in lost jobs, lost income and increased family stress all of which raise the likelihood of guilty please and reoffending.

According to the Department of Justice, 95 percent of the growth in the jail population since 2000 is attributed to an increase in pretrial detainees, Christopher Moraff reports in Next City. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average number of days that people stay in jail awaiting trial has increased from 14 days in 1983 to 23 days in 2013. Nationwide, according to a Harvard Law School report, 34 percent of defendants are kept in jail pretrial solely because they are unable to pay a cash bond. In 2011, 60 percent of local jail inmates were pretrial detainees and 75 percent of those detainees were charged with property, drug or other nonviolent offenses.

The perverse and unjust consequences of bail have begun to receive national attention as part of the larger concern about the revival of issue of the revival of debtors’ prisons. In March, the Justice Department sent a letter to judges cautioning them that employing “bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release” is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection.

In 2015, Equal Justice Under Law and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Calhoun, Georgia for its practice of requiring bail for indigent defendants even when that would force them to remain in jail. The case involved a disabled man jailed for six days because he couldn’t afford to pay a $160 fixed cash bail bond. In January the District Court ruled in their favor, issued an injunction against the city of Calhoun, and ordered it to implement a new bail scheme and release any misdemeanor arrestees in the meantime.

The city has appealed, arguing, “the Constitution does not guarantee bail, it only bans excessive bail.”

In August the Department of Justice, for the first time submitted a formal amicus brief on the subject of bail to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Some jurisdictions have begun to change their pretrial release policies so that danger to the community and likelihood of flight are the main factors to determine pretrial release, not whether the accused can pay bail, with significant success. In a New York City pilot program, 1,100 people were granted supervised relief; 87 percent showed up to court when required without incident.  From July 2013 to December 2014, Mesa County, Colorado was able to reduce its pretrial jail population by 27 percent without negative consequences for public safety.

Washington, D.C. has run an essentially cashless justice system for those accused of misdemeanors for many years. Nearly 88 percent of defendants in D.C. are released with non-financial conditions. Between 2007 and 2012, 90 percent of released defendants made all scheduled court appearances; over 91 percent were not rearrested while in the community before trial. Ninety-nine percent were not rearrested for a violent crime.

The New Mexico initiative originated with a murder case in which the defendant, remained in jail for more than two years without going to trial even though he agreed to wear a GPS device, make regular contact with the court and was not considered a danger to the community or likely to flee. The state Supreme Court rule in favor of the defendant. A task force recommended an amendment to the “right to bail” provision in the New Mexico constitution.

Constitutional Amendment 1 is a legislatively referred initiative passed with broad bipartisan support. No group is campaigning against it. Perhaps because it is a result of legislative action, the initiative reflects the give and take of the legislative process. Thus the Amendment also gives judges more discretion to keep dangerous people in jail — even if they can afford bail. A study from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation shows that nearly half of the highest-risk defendants are released pending trial while low-risk, non-violent defendants are frequently detained.

Perhaps more important, negotiations have resulted in final language more problematic than the original. Originally the Amendment was clearly and directly stated: “A person who is not a danger and is otherwise eligible for bail shall not be detained solely because of financial inability to post a money or property bond.” The final language reads, “A defendant who is neither a danger nor a flight risk and who has a financial inability to post a money or property bond may file a motion with the court requesting relief from the requirement to post bond. The court shall rule on the motion in an expedited manner.”

Some worry the additional conditions might raise barriers to achieving the objective. But most are optimistic that the New Mexico law will break new ground in efforts to make the justice system more equitable. New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles W. Daniels, a prime mover behind the initiative contends, “There is nothing I’ve done or will do on the court that is going to be a more important improvement of justice than getting this amendment passed.”

Whatever the outcome of the elections, a tip of the hat is in order to the citizens of California, New Mexico and South Dakota for giving themselves the opportunity to directly address some of the key problems facing the country.

IMAGE:  jimmywayne via Flickr

Reuters/Ipsos States Of The Nation: Clinton Leads In Florida

By Maurice Tamman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Democrat Hillary Clinton has pulled ahead of Republican rival Donald Trump in the traditional battleground state of Florida, strengthening her position in the race for the White House, the Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation project showed ahead of the pair’s first presidential debate on Monday night.

If the election were held on Monday, Clinton would lead Trump in the Electoral College by 259 to 191, with an 88 percent chance of reaching the 270 needed to win, according to the project’s results.

The project, based on a weekly online tracking poll of more than 15,000 Americans, estimates state-by-state results that will drive the voting in the Electoral College, the body that ultimately selects the president.

The results marked the first upward swing in the project for Clinton in several weeks. The last release of the poll, on Sept. 16, gave her a 61 percent chance of winning by a margin of about 14 Electoral College votes. The big difference now is that Florida, with its 29 Electoral College votes, favors Clinton 49 percentage points to Trump’s 45 points, the results showed.

Trump has also lost ground in New Mexico, where he trails 47 points to 38 points. Colorado and Nevada, which had leaned toward Trump, are now too close to call. Together, those states represent another 20 Electoral College votes. Clinton lost ground in Oregon and Wisconsin, which are also too close to call. They amount to 17 votes combined.

As many as 100 million viewers have been estimated for Monday evening’s debate at Hofstra University in New York state’s Long Island, which will begin at 9 p.m.

Whether that high interest translates into a higher turnout on Election Day on Nov. 8 remains to be seen. A higher turnout would likely benefit Clinton, while the opposite would benefit Trump, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling, whose latest estimate is for a moderate turnout.

Trump’s easiest path to victory would depend on a surge in turnout among white Republicans and lower-than-expected turnout among minority Democrats, according to the project. In that scenario, several Clinton-leaning states could flip. Florida, for example, would be a tossup, while Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina would lean toward the Republican.

The States of the Nation results came as Clinton’s standing in national opinion polls have seen a small bounce in recent days. A separate Reuters/Ipsos national tracking poll released on Friday, for example, had her ahead by four points, up from a near tie two weeks ago.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Richard Chang)

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves as she boards her campaign plane at the Westchester County airport in White Plains, New York, U.S., September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Latina GOP Governor Susana Martinez To Trump: ‘I Will Not Be Bullied’

When the chairwoman of the Republican Governor’s Association and the only Latina governor in the United States of America failed to endorse Donald Trump before he was set to campaign in her state on Tuesday night, dismayed Republican political strategists nationwide held their breath: What Would Donald Do?

Trump came out swinging.

“Since 2000, the number of unemployed people in Albuquerque has nearly doubled. Come on folks. What’s wrong here? It’s your fault? Is it your fault or is it your government’s fault? It’s your government’s fault…”

“We have to get your governor to get going! She’s got to do a better job, okay? Your governor has got to do a better job, okay? She’s not doing the job.”

“Hey! Maybe I’ll run for governor of New Mexico, I’ll get this place going! She’s not doing the job. We got to get her moving, come on, let’s go, governor!”

“Syrian refugees are being relocated in large numbers to New Mexico. If I was governor, that wouldn’t be happening. I couldn’t care less. They say the governors have no choice? If I’m governor, I have a choice, okay? Believe me.”

Fact check: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of unemployed people in a given month in Albuquerque in 2000 was 15,052. In March of 2016, according to the most recent preliminary data, the total number of unemployed in the city was 22,562. Trump’s guess was twice as large as reality, and Gov. Susana Martinez has only been in office for five of those years.

According to factcheck.org, over Martinez’s entire term, only 10 refugees of the Syrian Civil War have been relocated to New Mexico. And if Trump was governor, he would have no legal authority to stop refugees from traveling to New Mexico. Doing so would create a constitutional stand-off.

Gov. Martinez was not having it.

“Apparently, Donald Trump doesn’t realize Governor Martinez wasn’t elected in 2000, that she has fought for welfare reform, and has strongly opposed the president’s Syrian refugee plan,” Martinez’s press secretary said in a statement.

“But the pot shots weren’t about policy, they were about politics. And the governor will not be bullied into supporting a candidate until she is convinced that candidate will fight for New Mexicans. Governor Martinez doesn’t care about what Donald Trump says about her — she cares about what he says he will do to help New Mexicans. She’s disappointed that she didn’t hear anything about that last night.”

Spurred by all the commotion, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio offered some encouragement on Twitter.

 

Martinez is the exact wrong person for Trump to be bullying, in the middle of a awkward span of trying unite his supporters with establishment Republicans, and at the first signs of a long, expensive general election fight against Hillary Clinton.

Paul Ryan reiterated Tuesday, in response to reports floating around D.C. to the contrary, that he hadn’t “made a decision” about endorsing Trump yet, and though the two speak on the phone near daily, a spokesman for Ryan clarified that it wasn’t “an endorsement call.”

Ryan responded to Trump’s comments about Martinez by saying that she was a “great governor” and “a friend of mine.” Asked about pressure from the Trump campaign to endorse him, Ryan said “I don’t worry about that stuff.”

Somewhere in the labyrinthian halls of the expansive home of the suspiciously-named billionaire Los Angeles real estate investor Tom Barrack, where tickets to a fundraiser featuring Donald Trump Wednesday cost $25,000 — or $100,000 for a picture with Trump — the reality television star stared deeply into a mirror and repeated to himself:

“I will unite the Republican Party. I will unite the Republican Party. I will unite the Republican Party.”

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory/ Gov. Susana Martinez.

Kasich And Cruz’s Coordination May Be Too Late To Stop Trump

Republican presidential candidates John Kasich and Ted Cruz announced Sunday night that their campaigns would coordinate three future presidential primary efforts to keep party frontrunner Donald Trump from securing the Republican nomination. But their agreement doesn’t do nearly as much as a stronger, earlier attempt at stopping the frontrunner would have.

For starters, the coordination agreement, or at least what’s been discussed publicly so far, only covers three states: Indiana, New Mexico, and Oregon.

Indiana, as a winner-take-all state at the district level and overall, is a must-win for the #NeverTrump camp. Polling from the state shows Trump with 39 percent of the vote, putting him ahead of Cruz by six points and ahead of Kasich by 20.

Despite his campaign’s statement, though, it appears Kasich still wants Indiana voters to support him. “I’ve never told them not to vote for me,” he said at a diner in Philadelphia. “They ought to vote for me.”

He boiled the agreement down to a cost-saving effort: “I’m not out there campaigning and spending resources,” he said. “I’m not going to spend resources in Indiana. [Cruz is] not going to spend resources in other places.”

The New York Times reported that Kasich’s super PAC was honoring the agreement and chose not to run ads for him in Indiana, though “New Day for America” PAC may have just seen the writing on the wall: FiveThirtyEight has consistently put Kasich’s odds at winning the state below one percent.

Polling is harder to come across for the two states ceded to Kasich. The Oregon primary isn’t until May 17 and New Mexico’s isn’t until June 7 (perhaps Kasich insisted on later dates to substantiate his claim that he would be staying in the race until the convention), but each awards delegates proportionally, softening the blow for Cruz.

Trump only needs 393 more delegates to win the nomination outright before the Republican National Convention this summer in Cleveland. According to an analysis by The Hill, if Trump wins at least 115 of the delegates up for grabs today, he will only need to win 22 of Indiana’s 57 delegates, 13 of Oregon’s 28 delegates and nine of New Mexico’s 24 delegates, less than half in each state, to remain on track for the nomination.

While the coordination between the Kasich and Cruz campaigns was a boon to anti-Trump Republicans, the newfound spirit of cooperation between the two may be too little, too late.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate John Kasich addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) afternoon general session in Washington March 21, 2016.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts