As Republicans maintain a hold over the U.S. Senate and the Trump administration continues to threaten health care, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights, new governors are flexing their muscles to address those issues on the state level.
“At a time when the Trump Administration is rolling back LGBTQ acceptance at every opportunity, it’s reassuring that the nation has governors … who will put their foot down and make sure LGBTQ people and marginalized communities have a seat at the table,” said Zeke Stokes, GLAAD’s chief programs officer, in a statement to Rewire.News. “Their inclusive approach to governing sends a signal to others that all voices must be present in order to get things done for the people they serve.”
Democrats flipped seven governorships in 2018, bringing the total number of states under Democratic leadership to 23. Breaking up the GOP’s hold over multiple state governments will make it harder for those states to enact legislation that endangers the LGBTQ community or limits access to health care.
Here are six states where new Democratic governors have issued executive orders expanding health care, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights since taking office last month.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, was also a Democrat who worked to expand health-care coverage and protect reproductive rights. Already, California’s new governor has made it clear that he plans to continue down the same path.
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Newsom’s first official act in office was centered around health care—specifically, lowering prescription drug and health-care costs. The executive order he signed the day he was sworn in tasked his Department of Health Care Services with negotiating the pricing and purchasing of prescription drugs so that public and private purchasers don’t have to negotiate with drug companies themselves. Assembly Health Committee Chair Jim Wood told Kaiser Health News last month that negotiating prices could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars that could go toward insurance subsidies or coverage for young unauthorized immigrants.
Newsom’s state budget proposal also seeks to expand Obamacare subsidies for health-care coverage and create the nation’s most generous paid parental leave policy by guaranteeing six months of partially paid leave. He also called for the state’s Medicaid program to cover undocumented immigrants up to the age of 26. Undocumented youth were previously only eligible until the age of 19.
One week after taking office, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade declaring his commitment “to ensuring that Illinois is the most progressive state in the nation for protecting women’s reproductive rights.” His directive moved to ensure the state government complies with a law signed by former Republican governor Bruce Rauner in 2017 that removed provisions of the state’s “trigger law” and allowed abortion coverage in Medicaid and state health plans.
Pritzker’s order guarantees that state employees’ health insurance covers abortion. According to local news outlet WQAD, the new governor’s directive acted “to make sure state departments are complying with the law.” A circuit judge dismissed a lawsuit by anti-choice groups seeking to stop the law from taking effect, and an appellate court upheld that dismissal last fall. Pritzker said he was “concerned” that the law wasn’t being properly enforced for state employees, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
When it comes to protecting or expanding abortion access, Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, explained that it’s rare for governors to use their executive powers. “Governors haven’t used their authority in this way very often. Obviously, we’ve seen it on the other side,” Nash said, pointing to South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s 2017 executive order directing state agencies to stop funding medical practices affiliated with abortion clinics.
“Illinois made its changes before [Pritzker] became governor, and that took several years … to get that bill through the legislature,” Nash said. “This is one way to put your stamp on an issue.”
While Pritzker’s order focused on better enforcing the existing law, it also allowed him to highlight where he stands on the issue.
“This executive order will ensure there are no barriers to women exercising their right to choose under state employee group health insurance plans,” Pritzker tweeted in January. “Access to reproductive health care is a right—for women of all incomes, for women in all areas of our state, and for women with both private and government-funded health insurance.”
Gov. Laura Kelly’s first official action after taking office in January was to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination against state employees. The executive order, signed on January 15, states that no state agency shall “discriminate, harass, or retaliate against an individual in employment” on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or other factors such as race and religion. The order reversed former Republican governor Sam Brownback’s 2015 repeal of a previous iteration of the ban and extended the protections to state contractors.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need executive orders like this,” Kelly told reporters at a January news conference, according to the Associated Press. “It’s important that, until we become a perfect world, that we make sure that we’ve got the kinds of things in place that move it towards perfection.”
Kansas’ first two openly LGBTQ state lawmakers are now working to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by all employers in the state. Kelly has indicated she would sign the bill if it reaches her desk.
Gov. Janet Mills’ first executive order fulfilled her campaign promise to expand Medicaid. State residents voted for expansion in 2017, but former Republican governor Paul LePage refused to implement it and fought expansion in court. The lawsuit ultimately only delayed when Maine residents could sign up for MaineCare health insurance, as Mills began implementing the expansion as soon as she took office.
“Expanding health care and lowering the cost for Maine people and small businesses is a top priority of my administration, and I look forward to working with the Legislature to achieve that goal,” Mills said in a press release.
Later that month, Mills reversed her predecessor’s attempt to enforce work requirements for Medicaid and require people to pay premiums if they only use Medicaid for family planning services. LePage’s proposal had already been approved by the Trump administration, but Mills informed the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that the state would no longer accept the terms of the pending Medicaid waiver.
“Making sure people are healthy is the first step in making them eligible for work,” a spokesperson from Mills’ office said in an email to Rewire.News last month.
Michigan’s new governor took the same stand against LGBTQ discrimination as Kansas. In an executive order issued her first month in office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put into place additional LGBTQ protections for state employees by prohibiting any type of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The protections also extended to state contracting, grants, and loan programs.
“The State of Michigan must be a model of equal opportunity—reaching out to people, knocking down barriers, treating everyone fairly, and dispelling prejudices that hold Michigan and its residents back,” the January 7 directive reads.
The move was praised by LGBTQ organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which noted in a January press release that Michigan is one of 31 states that lack “fully inclusive, comprehensive statewide non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community.”
“Elections matter,” HRC Michigan State Director Amritha Venkataraman said in the press release. “In one of her first actions as governor, pro-equality champion Gretchen Whitmer has extended long overdue non-discrimination protections to members of the LGBTQ community.”
Gov. Tony Evers took action last month to fulfill his campaign promise to increase access to health care. In one executive orders, Evers called for the state’s Department of Health Services to develop a plan to expand Medicaid. In a second executive order, he directed state agencies to protect people with pre-existing conditions.
Evers’ directives didn’t actually expand Medicaid, as he would need the approval of Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature to do so. But they sent the message that his administration is committed to finding ways to improve access and affordability.
“Giving more people access to healthcare is a no-brainer,” he tweeted January 22. “My budget will seek to expand Medicaid—providing care to more people while saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”
In another executive order, Evers prohibited state agencies from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or other factors such as disability or political affiliation.
“Discrimination in any form is wrong, and through his actions today—signing his first executive order since taking office — Governor Evers continues to demonstrate that he will fight day in and day out to uphold the Wisconsin values of fairness, justice and equality,” HRC Wisconsin State Director Wendy Strout said in a January press release.
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