Graphics via Denzel Boyd
Graphics via Denzel Boyd

2020 wasn’t a banner year at the national policy making level, but that void made the work of state leaders all the more critical. They worked to reform policing, expand rights for traditionally marginalized residents, and reduce drug costs, among other measures.

Let’s face facts: 2020 was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 300,000 Americans, tens of millions of Americans are struggling to scrape by financially, police brutality and racial inequality continued to rear their ugly heads, and the federal government has been largely AWOL, with an outgoing president focused on subverting democracy instead of doing his job and leading his country.

But the year also saw a lot of progress made, particularly at the state and local levels. 

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While the Republican-led Senate and Trump’s White House blocked any progressive legislation from being passed at the national level, state and local lawmakers approved bills to reduce healthcare and drug costs, raise taxes on big businesses, enact paid sick leave policies, protect access to reproductive rights, reform their approach to public safety, ban the use of prison labor, and so much more. Voters in some states also opted to legalize marijuana and raise the minimum wage, while residents of cities like Austin, Los Angeles, and New Orleans elected a wave of reformer prosecutors to overhaul their criminal justice systems. 

2020 wasn’t a banner year at the national policymaking level, but that void made the work of state leaders all the more critical. With the year winding down, we spoke to three lawmakers involved in major state-level legislation that passed in 2020 and is already impacting people’s lives.

Colorado Passes Landmark Police Reform Bill

On May 26, a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing the 46-year-old Black man and setting off the largest protests since the Civil Rights Movement. Millions of Americans took to the streets to demand police reform.

The protests provided an enormous shot of momentum to already-existing efforts to overhaul the nation’s policing and criminal justice system. At the federal level, this push stalled out due to opposition from President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Senate. But some states and cities took matters into their own hands.

Nowhere did lawmakers take a bigger step than in Colorado.

On June 19, less than one month after Floyd was killed, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed bipartisan legislation into law, making his state the first in the nation to prevent cops from using the “qualified immunity” defense. For years, the legal doctrine has protected rogue police officers from civil lawsuits if they knowingly violate someone’s constitutional rights. In other words, victims of police brutality generally cannot hold officers accountable for their actions in civil court.

Under the bill spearheaded by Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, Coloradans who allege civil rights violations will be able to sue officers for as much as $25,000 in penalties.

Herod and other state lawmakers had pushed to end qualified immunity earlier in the year, but their efforts had petered out. It wasn’t until Floyd’s tragic death and the renewed attention on the 2019 Aurora, Colorado, police killing of 23-year-old Elijah McClain that momentum for Herod’s legislation really grew. 

RELATED: Colorado Is Reopening Investigation Into Horrifying Police Killing of Elijah McClain. Here’s What We Know.

“We’ve had tragic killings before, but this was the first time we’ve seen the international public outcry,” Herod told COURIER in an interview. “Folks from across Colorado were engaged in [Senate Bill] 217 and calling for its passage. That was something I hadn’t quite seen of that magnitude before, and we’re just very honored that it got passed.”

Herod expressed pride that the bill was the first of its kind in the nation to be enacted into law.

“I think what we showed folks is that we can do more and that we can work on policing and should work on policing and take these very definitive steps in keeping our community safe and ensuring the integrity of law enforcement,” Herod said. 

Beyond removing the qualified immunity defense, the law also:

  • requires nearly every officer in the state to use body cameras by July 2023 and activate them anytime they’re responding to service calls;
  • bans chokeholds and carotid control holds;
  • punishes officers who do not intervene when a colleague is using excessive force, while protecting those who do;
  • creates greater accountability, as officers who are found to have used force inappropriately or failed to intervene to stop excessive force will lose their jobs and be entered into a public database in order to ensure they are not hired elsewhere in the state;
  • allows the Colorado attorney general to prosecute law enforcement departments and officers with a record of misconduct.

Despite the progress made this year, Herod said that the year’s protests showed that “there’s so much more work to be done.”

She hopes the legislature’s success in 2020 will create a pathway for further reforms in 2021. “It is important for us to look at things like no-knock raids [and] law enforcement officers who are not badged appropriately,” Herod said.

Virginia Becomes the First Southern State to Enshrine Protections for LGBTQ Residents Into State Law

Over the past four years, the Trump administration has repeatedly targeted LGBTQ individuals, working to rescind protections for transgender students, removing non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals with regards to health care and health insurance, and banning transgender people from serving in the military, among other efforts

To counter those efforts, states and cities have stepped up in recent years to protect the rights of LGBTQ residents. This year was no different, as Virginia became the first state in the South to enact sweeping anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people into law.

The Virginia Values Act outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity when it comes to housing, private employment, and public accomodations and creates a framework for those who believe they’ve been discriminated against to take legal action. 

“People can’t be turned away from a restaurant, turned away from an apartment, or denied a job because of who they love or who they are,” the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin told COURIER in an interview.

Virginia is home to an estimated 257,000 LGBTQ adults and 50,400 LGBTQ youth, according to a January 2020 report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. 

The law doesn’t just protect LGBTQ residents, either; it also bans discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, religion, pregnancy, veteran status, and other categories. “There’s a lot of people in Virginia who need protection … It’s our broadest civil rights bill in Virginia history,” Ebbin said. “It would be wrong to just include one group without others.”

Ebbin, who became the first openly gay lawmaker in Virginia history when he was elected in 2004, said the bill’s passage showed how much had changed in such a short period of time. Back then, all the legislation dealing with sexual orientation was negative. Now, there’s a five-member LGBT caucus, and the legislature is taking proactive steps to protect Virginians who identify as LGBTQ. 

That Virginia—the former capital of the confederacy—was the first Southern state to pass such a law is also significant, according to Ebbin. “It shows that this country is changing and that Virginia’s changed.”

Ebbin’s bill was far from the only piece of progressive legislation passed in Virginia in 2020. Buoyed by a Democratic takeover of the legislature last year, the state government passed legislation to: increase the state’s minimum wage; decriminalize marijuana; ratify the Equal Rights Amendment; pass gun safety protections; roll back controversial restrictions on abortion access; and increase access to reproductive health care.

Maine Joins a Growing Number of States to Crack Down on Insulin Costs

Few issues have united Americans more in recent years than their frustration with surging drug costs. Since 2014, prescription drug prices have increased by 33%, according to a recent report from pharmaceutical information company GoodRx. 

House Democrats tried to take action in 2019, passing H.R. 3, which would have allowed the federal government to negotiate maximum prices for insulin and at least 25 other commonly prescribed, brand-name drugs without generic competition. Despite widespread public support for government action on drug prices and a Senate vote on H.R. 3, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Democrats’ effort to address drug costs. 

That inaction has forced states to take action themselves, and one key area where they’ve stepped up is addressing the skyrocketing cost of insulin—a drug that more than 7 million Americans rely on to survive. In 2019, Colorado became the first state to cap the price on insulin, after a decade in which the price for the most commonly used insulin drugs roughly tripled. In 2016, type 1 diabetics paid an average of $5,705 for insulin a year, nearly double what they paid just four years earlier in 2012, according to a report from the Health Care Cost Institute. 

In 2020, several other states followed in Colorado’s footsteps. In Maine, legislators enacted a law limiting insulin cost-sharing to $35 per 30-day supply for anyone with state-regulated commercial insurance. 

The federal government’s failure is what ultimately prompted lawmakers to act, according to state Sen. Heather Sanborn, a Democrat who chairs the legislature’s Committee on Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services. 

“The fact that we haven’t seen congressional action is really why I was willing to support this insulin legislation,” Sanborn told COURIER in an interview.

She said she believes the insulin cap will have a “huge impact” for the Mainers it protects, but also pointed out that it will only affect the small percentage of the population.

“Any individual in Maine who gets their health insurance through a large employer is beyond the reach of Maine regulations and folks who are on Medicare are also beyond the reach of Maine regulations,” Sanborn said. “That’s why we really need to have federal government action as well.

Maine legislators also achieved other big healthcare wins this year, passing laws that banned surprise medical billing and other abusive billing practices that have left countless consumers with unexpected and often exorbitant medical bills. 

Moving forward, Sanborn remains committed to reducing drug costs and said that recently passed legislation enabled the state to gather better data surrounding the true prices of prescription drugs, a key step in reducing their cost for consumers.

“[We] now have very robust data sets about costs at every step along the way in the distribution channels for prescription drugs,” Sanborn said. “The next step is really making that information that we’ve collected actionable and starting to really hold manufacturers, distributors, [pharmacy benefit managers], and everybody else involved in the supply of prescription drugs in this country accountable and making sure that they aren’t simply profiteering off of the health of Americans.”

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