On publicly funded elections

A state-level effort to raise money for climate finance, one union's vax mandate, and more on Medicare Advantage

Hi everyone,

This month actually marks four years since I went full-time freelance!? I am amazed it’s been that long already. I started this Substack in March 2018 to help aid me in that effort, and I thank you all so much for your readership and support. I can’t say the journalism industry has gotten more friendly in that time, unfortunately, but I am going to keep doing the work as long as I can. If you want to help a bit more with that:

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Some new journalism:

1. Yesterday in Bloomberg Businessweek I published a story on the state of publicly-funded elections. This is an idea that’s been around for over a century, with bills to publicly-fund congressional elections around since the 1950s. According to the Congressional Research Service, proposals were passed twice by the Senate in 1970s — largely seen as a response to the Watergate scandal — and three times by both the House and Senate in the late ‘80s and early 90s, but none of these ever made it into law.

While Congressional proposals have failed, today there are at least 27 public financing programs in mostly Democratic states, cities and counties, with models varying from vouchers, direct grants, and small-dollar matching programs. Washington D.C., where I live, launched a public financing program for the first time in 2020, and I spoke with one council candidate who won and likely wouldn’t have run without it.

U.S Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and Citizens United in 2010 helped hasten the infusion of money into politics by ruling that campaign spending limits restrict protected speech. Republicans tend to see public financing as wasteful taxpayer giveaways, designed to fix a political system that isn’t broken. Advocates for public campaign financing say the programs can stem corruption, empower the non-rich, and help diversify our politics by lowering the barriers to run.

Polls on public financing have long been pretty variable. Most Americans think money in politics is out of control, but they’re typically less keen to have their own tax dollars go to fixing the problem. There’s another bill in Congress right now to publicly fund congressional candidates, that’s included in the omnibus voting package known as H.R.1. To avoid the political blowback that would come with using taxpayer dollars, the program would be financed through a new fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, and settlements with banks and corporation.

In somewhat surprising news: a smaller version of the program was included in the Senate’s compromise voting rights package introduced this week. That’s a big deal, and while the compromise (it’d be just for House elections and only if a state’s chief elections officer opts the state in) isn’t as robust as the House version, it would be a major milestone if this were passed into law. And historically some places that have passed programs have then expanded them over time, including recently New York City and San Francisco. You can read that story here.

2. I have a new story in In These Times looking at a legislative effort to create a voluntary check-off option for Massachusetts residents to donate through their annual tax returns to the Least Developed Countries Fund, an international fund to help low-income nations adapt to the climate crisis. 

Readers of this newsletter know I’ve been interested in the issues of international climate finance (that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can reduce their carbon emissions and respond to threats of climate change) and I’ve written before about the Biden administration’s lagging commitments and the Green New Deal’s blind spot on this. (Today the OECD actually released new figures on the amount of funding ‘mobilized’ between 2013-2019.)

This Massachussetts measure, while absolutely could not replace the need for federal contributions, could still make it the first state in the nation to legislate in support of climate finance, and if it passes, and other states follow suit, that could raise a significant amount of additional funds. One Boston-based climate activist I spoke to who is helping to support the bill noted that members in their group (like most Americans) just really hadn’t engaged much on this issue before. They supported environmental justice, but hadn’t really extended those values internationally. If I have any Massachussetts readers, the bills are pending, H.2833 in the House, and S.1796 in the Senate. You can read the story here.

3. A few weeks ago I broke news for The American Prospect that the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a building trades union that represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, was coming in clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions. They went further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.

I talked to the union president, and tried to put the IUAPT’s decision in context of other union vaccine developments/debates. The labor movement continues to be divided over this, notably with police unions among the most opposed to requirements.

Thousands of police officers (and people generally) have started seeking religious exemptions to the Covid vaccine. I recommend this smart piece in the New York Times on how that’s playing out, even as major religious denominations are essentially unanimous in their support for vaccination.

4. Back in June I published a story in The Intercept on a proposed shift in New York City to move 250,000 municipal retirees off traditional Medicare onto “Medicare Advantage” — which is a privatized version of the program. Medicare Advantage started in the early 2000s, and today 24 million Americans are currently enrolled in such plans, or 43 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries, but we actually know shockingly little about the plans and how they work for patients. Employers love the plans, because they save them money, and private health insurance companies love the plans, because they actually still get paid by the government when seniors use fewer healthcare services.

The groups for whom Medicare Advantage may be far less… advantageous… are taxpayers and retirees, especially those retirees with complex health needs. While my June piece was about how retirees were trying to stop New York City’s shift, in July the city formally approved the change, which takes effect in January 2022. In a co-authored piece with a reporter from New York Focus, a nonprofit news site that covers New York state, I did some follow-up reporting on everything we know at this point about the details of NYC’s proposed Medicare Advantage plan. You can read that Intercept story here.

That’s it for now. Have a great rest of your week and just reiterate, always feel free to pitch me things you’re paying attention to! I can’t always do them, but they’re always helpful and some of my favorite stories I’ve done in the last few years have come out of conversations with readers of this newsletter. Thanks again.