Laura Sellers was the chair of the Stafford County Democratic Party in 2011 and later on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors. She’s competing in the 2019 primary to be the Democratic nominee for Virginia State Senate District 28. What Sellers lacks in social media presence, she makes up for in a newly popular characteristic in candidates: wonkishness. I spoke with Sellers over the phone about her candidacy, her objections to how Medicaid was expanded in Virginia, what needs to be done to make it the program people desire it to be, and the growing call for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
With so many Democratic candidates pushing the ERA in the 2019 state wide elections in Virginia, I asked Sellers if she agreed that ratification should be a priority. “Absolutely, it’s important,” she said, and was quick to add, “It’s a slap in the face that it hasn’t been done yet. It needs to get ratified next year.”
She also has experience running for office in her community and has a message for her fellow Democrats running in 2019 and beyond: “We have to run for something. We cannot run against Donald Trump. We can’t run against the Republican Party. When we do [run against things] we lose. We need to focus on what we’re going to do when we get control of the General Assembly and [tell voters] how we’re going to do things different. You have to run for something.”
Sellers draws on her career in social work for her unique perspective on public policy in the commonwealth, stating: “In the social work community—particularly those of us who are on the policy side—understand the macro and how it interacts with the micro.”
“There are policymakers who write feel good policy that doesn’t do good,” Sellers explained. “The important thing when you’re building a social program and legislating social programs is to make sure that your “feel good” policies actually work and help the people they set out to help.” That’s where the implementation of the Medicaid expansion in Virginia runs into problems, according to Sellers. Medicaid is managed by a private entity through the equivalent of a block grant.
“Block grants are issued as a set funding stream,” Sellers said. “So for instance, for $500,000 you need to execute a program. And your profit is based on how well you do that. There is no other way to get profits. The $500,000 is it. It’s very similar to how Medicaid in Virginia was implemented back when Bob McDonald was governor. Not only does it say, ‘this is the amount we’re willing to spend on Medicaid,’ it allows the contractor who won that contract to decide the ‘who, what, and where’ of how it’s executed. That’s incredibly problematic in Medicaid because they’re trying to maximize the profit by limiting who can access and bill back the program.” Sellers argued that, “It’s creating a huge problem in the mental health field because so many offices don’t have many independently licensed clinicians who are willing to work with the indigent population or the severely mentally ill population.” This results in shortages in the number of mental health providers and shortages in overall staffing according to Sellers who said, “That’s being seen across the board.”
Sellers said that she is glad that Medicaid expansion passed. “But we need to fix that. We need to 1) Get rid of the privatized Medicaid and go to a more traditional form of Medicaid where it’s a government run program and it’s run not to provide a profit for a company, but it’s run to provide a service to the people who need it. And 2)There needs to be some transparency and accountability.”
To right the ship, Sellers suggests that sunlight be written into law. Our discussion kept coming back to this critical point. The way that the commonwealth distributes and spends Virginia taxpayer dollars is cloaked in darkness which allows room for corruption, expands inequality and contributes to making sure “feel good policy” can’t do good—or at least not meet expectations.
“The transparency issues in the General Assembly need to be addressed,” said Sellers. “I think that first and foremost we need to tell tax payers where we’re spending their money. The second issue I see in the budget is that localities’ budgets are dependent on what Richmond sends back. What Richmond doesn’t do is tell the localities how much they’ve sent into the system.” The complicated system of doling out resources is because most taxes that Virginians pay, with the exception of property taxes, all go to Richmond and then are distributed ostensibly based on need. Sellers argues that this is a big disadvantage to local governments who are trying to fund things like schools and law enforcement. “The state government has to be transparent with the localities [so they are aware of how much they are raising in taxes.] During Bob McDonald’s tenure, they cut programs that benefited the department of education throughout the entire state; in total it was about a billion dollars. So, they reduced the number of support professionals that localities were allowed to use state funds to pay for—those are your professionals, nurses, social workers, etc. They have never given that money back. They completely eliminated the localities’ ability to use state funds for construction and infrastructure needs, so our schools are starting to fail, our buses are starting to fail, and localities can’t go to the state for that money.” Sellers argued, “The General Assembly needs to make education a priority, put back the billion dollars they took from it, allow localities to borrow the money they need, and rebuild our public education system in Virginia. There needs to be transparency because that’s not what’s happening.”
Attacking the source of the troubles, the lack of transparency and misplaced priorities in Richmond, and offering solutions is what Sellers hopes will propel her to the state senate.
You can find out more about Laura Sellers https://laurasellersva.com/about/Here and follow her on Twitter @LauraSellersVA
Adam James is the editor in chief of Majority60.com, a political scientist and believer in the American Dream. He was an Obama For America fellow in 2012. Follow him at @AdamJamesM60