In GOP-governed states, a push to reform marijuana restrictions, expand Medicaid, repeal the death penalty, curb driver’s license suspensions
This update is part of the weekly Political Report newsletter. Find more on our legislative round-up page.
Ron DeSantis did not articulate precise positions on criminal justice during his campaign for governor in 2018, but in the campaign’s final stretch he appeared to be comfortable with the state’s incarceration rate and hostile toward sentencing reform, according to reporting by Andrew Pantazi in the Florida Times-Union. Since he took office in January, articles have continued probing DeSantis’s views. Samantha Gross writes in the Miami Herald that DeSantis is breaking with his predecessor Rick Scott’s support for the restrictions that the legislature imposed on the legalization of medical marijuana approved by voters in 2016; DeSantis reportedly supports repealing the ban on marijuana taking a smokable form, and is otherwise looking to drop Scott’s legal appeal in defense of these restrictions. In addition, John Kennedy writes in the Florida Times-Union that DeSantis is seen as a wild card between campaign advisers and sheriffs who oppose sentencing reform, and conservative groups and lawmakers like state Senator Jeff Brandes and Americans for Prosperity that wish to push for it in the coming legislative session. Among the latter group’s targets: the state’s mandatory minimum guidelines, its harsh restrictions on early release, and the low threshold for when theft is considered a felony-level offense. The adoption of Amendment 11 by voters in November expanded the range of possible criminal justice reforms by enabling sentencing reforms to be retroactive.
Residents of Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah voted to expand Medicaid in November, and Maine’s new governor expanded her state’s program soon after taking office this month. Could Kansas be next? In 2017, the Republican-run legislature passed legislation expanding Medicaid but it failed to muster the supermajority required to override Governor Sam Brownback’s veto. As of this month, the governor is Laura Kelly, a Democrat who campaigned on expanding Medicaid and sent the legislature an expansion plan this week. Therefore, it would now be enough for expansion supporters to secure majority support. But conservatives made some gains in the legislature in the 2018 elections, The Kansas City Star writes.
In December, the Star’s editorial board argued that expanding Medicaid is essential to making drug addiction a public health issue rather than a carceral one. “You can let drug offenders, whose addictions often lead to other crimes, out of jail without making treatment available, of course, but that does make it much more likely that the ex-offender will wind up right back inside,” the board wrote. “And failing to make medication-assisted treatment available can only hobble the prospect that sentencing reform will work as it’s supposed to and could.” Governor Kelly echoed this argument in her State of the State address on Jan. 16: She argued that expanding Medicaid would help Kansas confront issues of drug addiction and substance abuse, and so “ease the unsustainable burden on our … criminal justice system.” Eric Russell reports in the Press Herald that Maine’s new governor, Janet Mills, has similarly made Medicaid expansion a cornerstone of her fight against the opioid crisis
The ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity have joined forces to support legislation (House Bill 217) that would stop the state of Montana from suspending people’s driver’s licenses for a failure to pay most court fines and fees that have stemmed from unrelated offenses. In introducing the bill, Republican state Representative Casey Knudsen called the practice a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” This Montana push emulates legal and legislative efforts in other states. In July, Maine adopted legislation to end the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for a failure to pay most court fines. And in July, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued a ruling that bars Tennessee from revoking licenses. “If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” Trauger wrote.
A new effort is underway in Wyoming to abolish the death penalty. The state House rejected similar legislation last year, on a vote of 34 to 25, as it had the previous four years. But this year’s bill (House Bill 145), whose main sponsors are Representative Jared Olsen and Senator Brian Boner (both are Republican), has many more co-sponsors than the effort’s past iterations—and one of those co-sponsors is House Speaker Steve Harshman, a Republican. Harshman was not a co-sponsor of the 2018 effort; in fact, he voted against moving the bill forward, as he had in 2016.
There is no one on Wyoming’s death row since a federal judge struck down the death sentence of Dale Eaton in 2014. In an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, Olsen argued that the state’s death penalty statutes is nevertheless a drain on the state’s finances and questioned its need as a deterrent. “There are a plethora of legislators who are stuck in the way that this is the only effective way to curb murders, even when the statistics show it’s not,” he said.