The notion of states as “laboratories of democracy” is generally credited to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
“It is one of the fortunate things of the federal system that a single courageous state can, if its citizens wish, serve as a laboratory; and try new social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” wrote Brandeis, the court’s liberal lion, in contradiction to a 1932 decision.
One wonders what Brandeis would do with Mississippi today.
“Perhaps not surprisingly, health outcomes in Mississippi are miserable for both women and children.”
– Supreme Court Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer disagree with the Dobbs ruling
The difficulties faced by residents of Jackson, the state capital, due to the total collapse of the municipal water system have received the most public attention in recent times, coupled with advice to residents to shower with their mouths closed and take other measures Health hazard from water intake.
But the tone of the mad scientists in Mississippi policy-making runs much deeper. The state has experimented for decades with the social and economic well-being of its citizens – particularly its poor and black citizens – and not for their benefit.
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His laboratory experiments were also not “without risk for the rest of the country”.
One such experiment, the passage of a severely restrictive anti-abortion law, is the basis for the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the guarantee originally provided in the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade of access to abortion was lifted.
Decided on June 24, Dobbs has already “unleashed chaos and atrocities across the country,” as Harvard law professor Lawrence H. Tribe put it. Approximately 30 states have enacted or are considering anti-abortion laws that will affect 40 million women of childbearing age, or 58% of women in that category nationwide.
We shouldn’t blame Brandeis for relying on the wisdom and flexibility of state legislatures in 1932 in what seems complacent today.
This was an era when a right-wing bloc on the Supreme Court placed a conservative federalism on state legislative decisions, ignoring local conditions, which Brandeis saw varied greatly from state to state.
Since then, advances in civil liberties and welfare have come sometimes from states and sometimes from congressional and presidential administrations enforcing federal standards.
“California’s values,” as its politicians are fond of proclaiming, provided a bedrock on which the state’s opposition to the federal rollback of anti-pollution and anti-discrimination laws under then-President Trump stood. But in other historical periods, less laudable policies that originated in California, such as racial discrimination against residents and citizens of Chinese and Japanese ethnic origin, spread nationwide.
In recent years, the most aggressive state-level initiatives have been launched by conservative state houses, often in ways that go against popular sentiment. They have undermined anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and restricted voting rights. They have restricted access to health care for women and low-income and minority communities, but expanded access to guns.
Mississippi is a standard bearer for this approach. Its lawmakers and governors have made decisions that have left the state bogged down in national rankings for healthcare and economic opportunity.
The state’s 2020 median household income of $44,966 (according to the Federal Reserve) was the worst in the nation, 11% lower than the second worst, Arkansas, and more than 33% lower than the US average of $67,521.
The Commonwealth Fund ranks Mississippi lowest in the country for the quality of its healthcare system. This is particularly true in the reproductive health category. Mississippi’s pregnancy mortality rate is the highest in the United States and nearly double the national average. The death rate for black women is three times that for white women. The state recently had among the worst COVID cases per capita, and its rate of fully vaccinated residents is the third-worst in the US at 53%
A blue-ribbon committee convened by the state Department of Health and Human Services to review the state’s records recommended accepting a federal offer to extend Medicaid eligibility from 60 days to a year after delivery, an extension granted by 34 states accepted. Earlier this year, the Mississippi Legislature refused.
It should come as no surprise that Mississippi is one of 12 states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
The three dissenters of the Dobbs decision, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer, have been scathing about the real context of abortion bans. “States with the most restrictive abortion policies continue to invest the least in women’s and children’s health,” they noted.
“Perhaps not surprisingly,” they noted, “health outcomes in Mississippi are abysmal for both women and children.” The state’s infant mortality rate is the highest in the country, they noted, amid “some of the highest preterm birth rates, low Birth weight, cesarean section and maternal mortality”.
After the Dobbs decision was made, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves paid lip service to those concerns. “The next phase of the pro-life movement is focused on helping those mothers who may have an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy… [and] to ensure these babies have productive lives once they are born.”
History gives no reason to be confident that Reeves means business. As the Dobbs dissent noted, Mississippi has “strict eligibility requirements for Medicaid and nutritional assistance, leaving many women and families without basic medical care or enough food.”
Last month, Reeves returned $130 million to the federal government earmarked for temporary rent subsidies, calling the program a “socialist experiment.”
Meanwhile, evidence is emerging that about $70 million in state welfare payments to poor families were diverted to recipients including Mississippi-born star NFL quarterback Brett Favre, allegedly for speeches he never gave. (Favre denies the no-show allegations, has returned at least part of the fees, and has not been charged with a crime.)
This brings the Jackson water crisis full circle. The city is more than 80% black, an artifact of the white flight that began in the 1980s after its public schools were integrated. The water system suffered from decades of delayed maintenance and understaffing, resulting in persistent violations of federal water quality standards.
In 2021, when a winter storm left 40,000 residents without drinking water for weeks, the city asked state legislatures for $47 million for emergency repairs. Lawmakers approved $3 million. Lawmakers also refused to allow the city to collect a 1-cent sales tax to pay for water and sewer improvements.
With a full repair of the water system expected to cost about $1 billion, Reeves said this week he was open to “privatizing” the system. Often the privatization of public utilities means higher prices and worse customer service. Jackson happened to have experience with the process, and it wasn’t pretty.
In 2013, the city struck a $90 million deal with multinational engineering firm Siemens to repair water systems and install new, supposedly more accurate, water meters.
According to a lawsuit the city filed against Siemens in 2019, the company guaranteed the contract would generate $120 million in revenue for the city and would effectively pay for itself. (Hat tip to Judd Legum of online news site Popular Information for localizing the episode.)
The city claimed Siemens pulled a bait and tricked the city into signing a contract that lacked that firm guarantee. The deal was a disaster, the city said. The water meters were broken and could not communicate with the data system that generated the bills. Some residents received bogus, sky-high bills; others went months without bills, followed by several months of bills they couldn’t afford.
“Siemens’ water system continues to be a disaster for the City of Jackson and its citizens,” the lawsuit said. “Siemens ended up guaranteeing the city nothing but financial ruin.” The city sought more than $450 million in damages but said ultimate losses over time could total $700 million.
In 2021, the city and Siemens reached a $90 million settlement — essentially the original price of the contract.
Solicited for comment, Siemens sent me the statement made at the time of the settlement: “Following meaningful dialogue between both parties, the City of Jackson and Siemens have reached a mutual and final agreement to resolve this matter,” the statement said. who acknowledged that “the project did not end as either party had hoped.”
Only a fraction of the $90 million was available for Jackson to fix what broke: About $30 million was paid to his attorneys, and another 10 million to cover obligations under the bonds that the city had imposed payment of the contract and other costs.
If Reeves or anyone else thinks that handing over the municipal water system to private operators will solve their problems, they should read the lawsuit.
So much for the laboratories of democracy. State-level experimentation in America today has the potential to destroy the lives and health of millions of people outside a state’s borders, if only federalism protects them. Louis Brandeis was one of our greatest Supreme Court justices, but he was also a man of his time. And times have changed.
https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-09-07/jackson-mississippi-water-crisis-democracy-infrastructure Hiltzik: What’s the matter with Mississippi?