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Michael Sargeant Headshot

The President's Vision Depends on the States

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The president spoke eloquently in this year's State of the Union address on a number of issues critical to America's future. But I was struck this year by how much the president's vision -- any president's vision -- has come to depend on willing partners in state legislatures.

Three of President Obama's top priorities for 2014 clearly illustrate why that's the case: The minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, and voting reform. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have said explicitly that they are not interested in any of these three issues.

But it's a vastly different story in the states. Democrats won eight new legislative majorities in 2012, and it's in Democratic-led states where the president's vision is already coming to fruition. If this resurgence continues as it has, then America will continue moving in the progressive direction voters demanded in 2008 and 2012, even if Republican obstruction continues in Congress.

Just weeks into 2014, dozens of states are considering legislation to raise the minimum wage or tie it to inflation -- an idea nearly 80 percent of Americans support.

But of the states that already considered the issue in 2013, only four took action: Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. All eight of those states' legislative chambers have more Democrats than Republicans. And in New Jersey, majority Democrats were forced to go directly to the people, who voted overwhelmingly to raise the minimum wage after Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed the bill.

The story is largely the same when it comes to Medicaid. 5 million working uninsured Americans were supposed to get health insurance through Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, paid for by federal dollars. Most states have accepted the offer, but nearly two-dozen state governments chose to take that insurance away, leaving those 5 million Americans out in the cold.

There are real differences of opinion about the Affordable Care Act, but what can possibly be gained by a state denying its citizens' health care when it would cost state taxpayers nothing? What could possibly justify leaving 5 million families just one accident or illness away from financial ruin?

The individuals responsible for taking that coverage away, in every one of those states, were either a Republican majority in at least one legislative chamber or a Republican Governor (or both).

Voting reform is no different. The president's bipartisan election reform commission -- headed by the lead attorneys for both his own 2012 campaign and Mitt Romney's -- has produced a widely-praised roadmap for how to prevent the 7-hour voting lines that marred Election Day in 2012.

Early voting is the centerpiece of the commission's roadmap. Voters love the convenience of voting early, and more take advantage of it with every passing election cycle. As more do so, Election Day grow shorter. And voters who encounter some problem -- say a typo in the voter rolls, or an improper ID, or an accidental voter purge -- have more time to correct the problem. It's only of best safety-vales we have to protect voters' rights.

Some legislatures are moving to make early and absentee voting easier, and with one important exception, this is mostly happening where Democrats hold the majority - states like Minnesota, Colorado, and Maryland. Florida's GOP-led legislature recently agreed to slightly expand early voting, but only after their earlier decision to cut early voting in half led directly to those 7-hour lines that caused the state national embarrassment on Election Day 2012.

But incredibly, some Republican-majority legislatures are actually cutting early voting, despite the lessons from Florida in 2012. North Carolina and Wisconsin cut early voting in half, and now Wisconsin GOP legislators have come back with a new bill to abolish early voting on weekends. Ohio Republicans have proposed similar cuts.

It's clear with strong progressive allies in the states, the president's vision on these and other important issues will be enacted. Without them, it will not.