Jewish lawmakers, advocacy groups chart legislative goals

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Jewish legislators and advocacy groups in Missouri are set to push hard to expand health care coverage and block attempts to implement stricter voter identification standards during the General Assembly session that began Jan 7.

State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, has introduced a measure that would broaden Medicaid coverage in Missouri under provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act. 

“I don’t believe that will be the bill that ends up passing, but I’m certainly willing to talk to people on both sides of the aisle to make sure that people have this access and that the state has access to the billions of dollars that the expansion will also bring in,” she said.

As of mid-December, according to a scorecard kept by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 28 states including the District of Columbia have adopted Medicaid expansion; 16, including Missouri, have not; and seven are still considering it. 


The issue is controversial in a number of states. Under Obamacare, the federal government will cover the full cost of expansion for the first three years and 90 percent of the price tag going forward. But some critics of Obamacare say the move would ultimately shift too much of the expense to the states;   others say it would be foolish to refuse the money and wrong to deny coverage to the poor.

Schupp said Medicaid expansion is a key issue that speaks to the values of Jewish legislators.

“I know we also are very concerned about a lot of human and civil rights issues, whether those are voting rights, women’s rights, the rights of all people regardless of their income level or where they live to receive a quality education or go to the doctor when they need to,” she said.

Schupp’s other priorities include education, limiting campaign contributions and ensuring greater transparency in the donation process.

Schupp’s election to the Senate after three terms in the House was among the few bits of good news for Missouri Democrats during the electoral beating they took in November, in which Republicans bolstered the veto-proof supermajorities they already held in both houses of the Missouri legislature.

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Clayton, said: “I’ll be dealing with my priorities that I’ve worked on for the last five years, but being a member of the minority party, I understand that my role will be largely defense.” 

Newman said that she hopes Medicaid will be expanded but that those prospects are dim with Republicans in charge.

In the meantime, she said, she will tackle other issues, including gun control.

“We do expect some bad gun bills,” Newman said. “It’s kind of hard to know what’s going to top last year’s (bills). I’ll be filing once again my universal background-check bill and be talking about it as much as I can on the floor, because we know that that is one way that we can save lives.”

Abortion rights are another area in which Newman expects to be active. She cited her opposition to a measure proposed last year that would have required a woman wishing to terminate a pregnancy to get the father’s permission.

“I intend once again to be a very loud voice in terms of standing up for women’s reproductive justice, because there will be more bills filed, I assure you,” said Newman, who has held her seat since 2009. 

Newman also opposes passing new voter ID requirements. Proponents say that measure, which mandates that voters present a photo ID at the polls, can help prevent election fraud. However, Newman and others contend such efforts are unnecessary and represent a form of voter suppression. 

“We already know across the country that this is a horribly bad idea,” she said. “It disenfranchises many groups of people who are longtime eligible voters who are voting just fine.”

Newman said she has also proposed a measure dealing with those who try to “test” school security procedures — prompted by an incident last January in which an undercover TV reporter accidentally prompted a lockdown at Kirkwood High School. The TV station later apologized. 

“I’ve filed that bill again,” she said. “I was lucky to get a hearing last year.”

Rep. Sue Meredith, a midcounty Democrat whose 71st District runs along Page Avenue from Interstate 170 to Creve Coeur Park, said she’ll also continue to push health care and abortion rights issues although she isn’t optimistic about their reception in the GOP-dominated legislature.

But Meredith also said she’ll work on education, including her desire to expand a program she’s seen at a north St. Louis County elementary school that divides pupils into a series of tiers based on their progress in each subject rather than just by age.

Meredith also hopes to push the state to give more help to victims of traumatic brain injury. She said they must often wait more than a year after their insurance runs out before getting government assistance.

“If you broke your leg and were in the hospital and you came out, after you healed enough, you would have physical therapy or the muscles are going to atrophy,” she said. “The brain works the same way.”

Meredith said the best legislative strategy often is to interact quietly with Republicans to get things inserted into measures.

“I tend to work behind the scenes because I’m a Democrat,” she said. “Our bills are at the bottom of the stack. You can get a heck of a lot done backstage.”

Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues and social justice for the Jewish Community Relations Council, said her agency will advocate for Medicaid expansion, an area where she feels progress is being made.

“This is our third year working on this issue,” Wechsler said. “We know that we’ve got members on both sides of the aisle that support Medicaid expansion.

“Another area we’ll be looking at is voter ID. We believe in expanding the right to vote, and we’ll be opposing measures that require certain forms of ID in order to vote.”

Wechsler said the JCRC also supports greater expansion of early voting and efforts to boost gun safety.

“That’s a hard sell in this legislature but we do have a policy in support of background checks and other ways to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who commit domestic abuse,” she said.

The JCRC also will continue to monitor threats to church-state separation. Other social justice topics may also come to the fore, Wechsler said.

“Post-Ferguson, we are looking at poverty issues, which we’ve been working on for a very long time and will continue to,” she said.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rabbinical Association has voted unanimously to oppose so-called right-to-work legislation. The group expects to see legislation filed that would make Missouri a right-to-work state.

Right-to-work laws generally prohibit employers from collecting union dues as a paycheck deduction from employees covered by a contract, even if they are members of the union. Federal law requires unions to represent all workers, even if they don’t pay dues. Right-to-work proponents say such laws give workers a choice; opponents say they are intended to weaken unions by making it difficult to collect dues, and often result in lower wages statewide. 

“Working for economic justice is a key ethic of the Jewish tradition,” the Rabbinical Association said in a statement, explaining that it believes such proposals weaken the rights of workers.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman, who heads the group, said that his work with the Faith and Labor Coalition brought the issue to his attention and that enthusiasm was high in the association to take a position.

“Everybody supported it,” he said. “Everybody seemed familiar with the issue.”

Another issue is domestic violence. The National Council of Jewish Women has been a strong advocate for Senate Bill 130, sponsored by state Sen. Gina Walsh, a Democrat whose district encompasses north St. Louis County, the measure would ensure that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are able to take unpaid time from work to obtain orders of protection as well as medical, social or legal services. The bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. Schupp.

Ellen Alper, NCJW St. Louis Section executive director, said this is the third time the proposal has come forward.

“The first year it was introduced, it didn’t really go anywhere,” she said. “Last year, we had hearings in the House and the Senate. It actually made it to the floor of the Senate, where Sen. Walsh withdrew the bill because by the time it hit the floor, they watered it down and took out the enforcement provisions.”

Alper said that her organization will also take positions on voter ID, Medicaid expansion, minimum wage, abortion rights, human trafficking and other topics.

“A lot of our work will be in response to what has been filed,” she said.