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Progressives Must Turn Their Attention to the States

by WS Editors

Dec 1, 2006 | Economy, Politics


After three dreadful election cycles—each, it seems, worse than the one before—progressives have made serious gains. The statistics are great: Six U.S. Senate seats. Twenty-nine U.S. Representatives. Six governors. Nine legislative chambers. More than three hundred state legislators. Final tallies are still being crunched, but it looks as though Democrats picked up everywhere from federal office to dog catcher.

But progressives should not be fooled. Despite significant gains, our hold on power in Washington, D.C., is tenuous. The two-seat majority in the Senate requires only a single defection to derail any legislation. And policy that is too forward-thinking or threatening to right-wing financial interests is likely to be met by a filibuster (Republicans have already pledged to block the Employee Free Choice Act). In the House, the situation for progressives is better, but corporate-conservative Democrats, who often vote with Republicans on economic issues, threaten to curtail progressive policy.

Of course, even if filibusters, Democratic defections, and powerful special-interest lobbying can be overcome, George W. Bush still has veto power. While he has rarely used it in the past, no one should be surprised to see the Lame Duck wield it as often as he likes.

Given this reality, it would be wise for progressives looking for real steps forward to focus beyond Washington, D.C., to the fifty battlegrounds, the “laboratories of democracy”—to the states—where new policy solutions will be bubbling up.

WHY THE STATES MATTER—States have earned their reputations as laboratories for a reason. With greater discretion over their budgets, wide latitude in acting on health care and education, and a proximity to constituents that makes reform easier than it is in the insulated Beltway, state legislators are well positioned to institute policies to make a difference in people’s lives.

Consider this: State and local revenue is equal to 16.2 percent of GDP. State courts handle 17 million civil cases a year. State employment law lays the baseline of worker rights for millions of Americans. States house 1.9 million prisoners, more than ten times the prison population at the federal level. And state public-employee pensions manage trillions in assets.

While the federal government dedicates billions to health care and education programs, the way the money is spent is often determined not in Congress, but in state legislatures. In other words, whether the issue is criminal law, tort law, workplace issues, classrooms or health care, states are the critical battlegrounds. And with a handful of Northeastern states and California embracing real global-warming reforms, these local moves are pushing the issue along at the national level.

A hike in the minimum wage—now one of the highest-priority issues for the new Congress—gained steam after being pushed through legislature after legislature last session, and voters in six states approved ballot proposals adding cost-of-living adjustments to the minimum wage.

While Congress is talking about fixing Medicare Part D, a number of states have already made bold moves with prescription drugs, including innovative cost-saving measures in Oregon, Maine and elsewhere. These forward-looking developments remind voters and the press that Americans don’t have to settle for legislation written by pharmaceutical lobbyists during a time of record industry profits.

States don’t just produce leading issues; they also produce leaders. In 2006, a number of the most inspiring and successful candidates for U.S. Senate—Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, Amy Klobuchar, and Claire McCaskill—rose to their role from state or local government.

In the next two years, states will have an opportunity to continue their leadership, and in more states than ever, progressives will be poised at the fore. Make no mistake, corporate America understands the power of statehouses. While Washington lobbyists have reigned supreme for the last twelve years, Business Week has reported that lobbyists are setting their sights on the statehouses as a result of the newly hostile landscape in Washington. If progressives are going to prevent November’s gains from being anything but Pyrrhic victories, it is incumbent upon us to be ready to take key policy fights to the states.

PROGRESSIVE STRENGTH IN THE STATES—Prior to the 2006 election, Democrats controlled the “trifecta” (both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office) in eight states. That number has since risen to fifteen. But the numbers are slightly misleading: Some of these states are very narrowly held or are effectively in the control of conservative Democrats.

But these numbers also understate progressive performance in key ways. In Washington and Colorado, Democratic majorities previously held hostage by one or two conservative members swelled in size, with the November vote, improving their ability to move legislation. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, although less than perfect, has shown a willingness to cooperate on some key progressive issues. In Minnesota, the Democratic gains in the legislature were very significant, increasing the likelihood that progressives will be able to override vetoes from the conservative governor. In New York, the Working Families Party, through its cross-endorsement strategy, has fostered key relationships with Republicans in the GOP-held Senate.
In virtually every state in the nation, progressives enter the 2007 legislative cycle in a better position than they did two years ago. That means that they can pass more good bills and defeat more bad ones than has been possible for a very long time. Fortunately, progressives also have an agenda to put in place in the states.

A WINNING AGENDA—The minimum wage won big in every state where it was on the ballot. America wants a raise. But the minimum wage is just a beginning. A real progressive agenda will increase democracy, strengthen communities and families, ensure that work is rewarded, and find new economic-growth strategies. By cutting across single-issue divides, a progressive agenda can inspire the country and unite people who would not otherwise find common ground.

1. Clean and Fair Elections: In the early hours of Election Day, news stories were already hitting the wires about voting problems. Long lines and machine problems marked the day for too many voters in polling locations across the country. But as basic as it is, fixing voting problems is not the only step to be taken toward getting America’s government back on track. Americans are also concerned that their elected officials, once in office, put lobbyists and special interests first.

As grim as the voting situation appears now, solutions do exist. Early-voting and vote-by-mail plans can address the long lines and the lack of a paper trail, while freeing people with busy schedules to vote at a convenient time. Oregon has shown that universal vote-by-mail can be enacted while avoiding problems and has actually saved money. Washington is following suit. A number of other states now have early-voting laws that allow voters to cast their ballots early at designated polling locations.

In order to avoid problems that can tangle voter registrations and to ensure that people can vote even if they forget to register or re-register, states should enact Election Day registration laws. Already in place in Minnesota, Montana and several other states, such laws have proven effective at increasing turnout, especially among young voters.

Restoring confidence that politicians answer to their constituents instead of to powerful interests should lead to proposals for clean elections. At the corporate level there is the potential to ban “pay to play” campaign contributions from companies bidding on government contracts. At the community—or even state—level, candidates can run voter-owned campaigns through public financing, once a candidate demonstrates enough support. Such campaigns are fully publicly financed, removing even the possibility of corruption. Public financing schemes are already in place in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, where they have proven popular with both candidates and voters.

2. Health Care for All: No domestic issue is more front-and-center in the minds of voters than health care. With a system that is basically broken, in which care is rationed by ability to pay, inflation occurs every year and often hits double digits, the number of uninsured rises continually, and the federal government is failing to act, states simply must take the lead.

In the system that is in place, employers remain responsible for health care. Too many irresponsible large employers are simply refusing to provide coverage, passing costs on to individuals and taxpayers. States can implement measures to assure employers responsibility. Strong requirements, like those instituted in Maryland and New York City, or broad-based fees like those in effect in Vermont, are ways that states can compel sufficient employer contributions.

Ending much of the cost-shifting by extending coverage to more Americans is a noble goal. States can build on the federal State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to insure more of the nation’s children. Changing eligibility rules for Medicaid would allow more people in. And a small handful of states, including Oregon and Wisconsin, are even looking into truly comprehensive solutions.

Finally, states can help fight health-care inflation through innovative programs to control the cost of prescription drugs through bargaining, purchasing pools, and performance testing. Medicaid rules can be reformed to prevent overcharges. Pay-for-Performance standards will increase quality while cutting costs, as will the expansion of information technology.

3. Wage Standards and Workplace Freedom: The past three decades have witnessed stagnating wages, even with productivity levels high. Young Americans just entering the workforce need motivation in the face of this pressure. State and local governments are a fine arena for progressives to approach the problem of raise wages. Prevailing-wage and living-wage laws can ensure that taxpayer money is not used to support poor wages that hurt the labor economy. Economic development funds can be leveraged, as they now are in Idaho, into better-paying jobs as a stipulation of government assistance for business ventures. Specific industries can also simply be singled out for higher wage rates. Various cities have targeted large employers, hotels, retail stores, and tourist zones.

In addition to new wage policies, progressives should embrace mechanisms to better enforce existing labor standards. Companies should be held accountable for the actions of subcontractors. Standards for independent contractors and day laborers can be raised. Penalties can be raised. And private citizens and legal services can be given additional resources and authority to blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance.

The best check on wage law violators may well be labor unions. Unfortunately, states have relatively little authority to protect the freedom to form unions, but there are some simple policies that can be enacted. Expanding employee access to free speech at malls and other retail spaces protects democracy and increases union organizers’ ability to reach workers. States can also extend labor rights to workers not covered by federal labor law, including farmworkers, domestic workers, public employees, home health-care workers, and day-care workers.

4. Balancing Work and Family: The twenty-first-century economy shouldn’t wreak havoc on the twenty-first-century family. All too often, when choosing between the “family values” they espouse and the business interests that fill their campaign coffers, elected officials have been loath to advance policies that actually do value families.

A first step in helping families would be simply protecting the right of Americans to take a break from work when they need to. This ranges from protecting unpaid leave to flexible schedules that allow parents to attend children’s school activities. Paid sick days are a critical reform—both to protect the health of workers and the public they serve.

It’s time to expand early childhood programs, from better child care options to expanded pre-kindergarten options. These measures can both assist concerned or working parents and provide a level playing field for all children.

Finally, reasonable contraception legislation can give parents better control over having children. Contraception equity laws, emergency contraception availability, and coverage of contraception through Medicaid are all sound policies.

5. Smart Growth and Clean Jobs: Fuse national security, economic growth, and environmental protection into one policy and you’ve got a mix that polls off the charts. Americans are excited about the prospect of clean energy, in terms of the jobs it will create and the relief it will offer from dependence on Middle Eastern regimes. Smart-growth policies extend beyond renewable energy to include efficient transportation, preserving open space and promoting green building practices.

States can push alternative energy development through renewable portfolio standards, tighter environmental rules, and tax credits. Additionally, funding can simply be steered through bonds, pension funds, state-managed investment pools, and federal dollars that have been leveraged into alternative energy investments.

6. Tax and Budget Reform: Some of the best news on Election Day did not make it into the headlines. So-called TABOR measures, which limit government spending, died in every state where they appeared on the ballot. And tax cut measures also died in several states. The tax revolt, it seems, is over. We will not mourn its passing, but we should learn from the experience. Progressives need to take care with taxpayer money, but tax policies pursued correctly will provide revenue needed to fund a progressive policy agenda.

Most Americans already believe that the rich and powerful are sneaking by without paying their fair share of taxes. States can confirm what they believe and pass disclosure laws to increase public awareness of who is paying how much in taxes. Such moves are opening salvos in the fight to increase progressivity in state taxes and give progressives an opportunity to reform property taxes, an area that continues to draw the ire of a great many citizens.

Tax expenditures—tax credits and deductions often given to huge corporations—lack the scrutiny of other expenditures, because altering them gets attacked as a “tax hike.” Often, though, these expenditures simply fail to accomplish their goal. Increased scrutiny, automatic sunset provisions, public disclosure, and minimum job quality standards for corporate recipients of these giveaways are just a small handful of ways to reform this system.

In recent years, too much of government has been outsourced and too much of the outsourced government has been privatized at great expense to taxpayers and with little improvement in quality to the people on the receiving end. Requiring regular reports on contracting work is key to introducing accountability into privatization efforts. And contracting standards should be tightened to ensure that privatization schemes are not allowed to remain little more than excuses to pass government money to private interests at the expense of state workers.

For too long, progressives have failed to focus adequately on state policy. The battles that rage in fifty statehouses affect the lives of all Americans, set the stage for the battles in Washington, D.C., and create new leaders who end up in immensely powerful roles as senators and governors.

A new day is just beginning. It is time to get to work.

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