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Building a Progressive Majority in the States: Policy Options for 2007
Matt Singer on November 22, 2006 - 3:19pm
Building a Progressive Majority in the States:
Progressive States Policy Options Program
Table of Contents
Wage Standards and Workplace Freedom - Key Policies
Balancing Work and Family - Key Policies
Health Care for All - Key Policies
Smart Growth and Clean Jobs - Key Policies
Tax and Budget Reform - Key Policies
Clean and Fair Elections - Key Policies
This November, we saw voters taking the first steps to repudiate the rightwing ideology and institutions that have long dominated much of the political landscape in our states. For too long, we have seen rightwing politicians, backed by corporate money and by conservative think tanks, blocking communities from improving wages, impeding expansion of health care, and auctioning off public assets and public contracts to big monied interests.
But now we can build on these progressive victories to build towards a progressive majority in all our states. On issue after issue of concern to working families, there are solid majorities for enacting progressive policies. What we need is a coordinated strategy across states to highlight those issues that can broaden the coalition of progressive voters and reframe the debate across the nation about why it matters to working families that progressives hold office in our statehouses.
This past year, a group of legislators, non-profit leaders and advocates formed the Progressive States Network to provide day-to-day support to state legislators and community organizations in each state to help make that happen. This accompanying package of issues is not designed to be an exhaustive set of policies but instead strategically focuses on those that can attract support from disaffected voters and thereby "wedge" those rightwing politicians whose allegiance to campaign contributors clashes with the desires of many of the voters who put them into office. And Progressive States as an organization has committed to providing legislative support to campaigns in states advancing these policies.
Supporting the Program: The policy options in the following pages are meant to be just that: a set of options that can each illustrate the values associated with each set of issues. Some are simple common-sense reforms while others are more ambitious, comprehensive policies, but all would make concrete improvements in the lives of working families and improve our communities. Each policy builds on the others to reinforce the progressive message. The idea is that local legislators can promote those options most appropriate for the political environment and needs of their states.
As an organization, Progressive States will support the policy program by providing progressive legislators with both the technical and messaging support needed to enact those policies into law. Our constant goal is to help legislators by promoting best practices for these issues, providing background research, assisting legislators in drafting versions of the policy appropriate to their individual states, and helping them advance related legislation that has already been introduced in their states.
Through partnerships with think tanks, national political partners, and local grassroots organizations, our goal is to build support for these state-specific legislative campaigns, while promoting a message continuity across multiple states that reinforces the progressive message nationally. By strengthening communication between legislators and grassroots organizations across different states, Progressive States acts as an information hub so that legislators can keep up-to-date on news from other states, identify trends so that progressive legislators can anticipate what is coming their way, and help legislators educate each other on how to win.
Progressive States will also act as a "war room" to help legislators respond quickly with legislative amendments, provide expert policy testimony, and generally act as surrogate staff members to help encourage passage of legislation. Our aim is to promote campaigns, including innovative online communication strategies, that generate a crescendo of interest that sweeps multiple states simultaneously and raises progressive issues to a political prominence that helps redefine state politics.
What Progressives Face: Even with November's victories, progressives confront a political landscape shaped by a well-organized rightwing network that has worked for decades to establish political power in the states. In a February report, Governing the Nation From the Statehouses: The Rightwing Agenda in the States and How Progressives Can Fight Back, the Progressive States Network outlined how groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and a range of other allied rightwing groups have hijacked public policy in the states.
Tens of millions of dollars of rightwing corporate money has poured into local research think tanks and lobbying organizations to create an "echo chamber" around their issues. This rightwing network of groups have drafted and promoted state legislation across the country that has crippled social service budgets, deregulated industries, slashed medical care for the poor and undermined consumer and worker protections in state after state. At both the federal and state level, they have promoted policies that have "wedged" progressive groups against each other while cementing a rightwing coalition around rhetoric of tax cuts and rightwing social issues. Progressives have often failed to counter these wedge issues promoted by the corporate-backed conservative movement and de facto ceded what should be progressives voters to the opposition.
A prime goal of the Progressive States Network is to assist progressive state leaders in expanding support among many voting groups that should be supporting many progressive policies. The opportunities for that outreach is significant, as the Pew Research Center, which has developed a typology of voter beliefs, emphasizes:
- In its "2005 Political Typology," Pew divides the population into nine different voting blocs and finds that even many voters that sympathize with progressive economic values are voting for politicians with rightwing economic views.
- Among two groups, "Social Conservatives" and "Pro-Government Conservatives"-who make up a majority of the Republican base-- over 80% feel "too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies" and a strong majority of both groups support stricter environmental regulation, raising the minimum wage, and guaranteeing health care for all Americans.
- In fact, one small demographic, what Pew calls "Enterprisers" who make up just 9% of the population, are the ONLY group whose members generally oppose raising the minimum wage, the ONLY group which opposes guaranteed health care, the ONLY group that thinks outsourcing is good for the economy, and the ONLY group whose members generally think environmental regulations are not worth the costs.
What is startling is that this last small voting group, just 9% of the population, in combination with the corporate-backed rightwing apparatus, has been the tail wagging not only national and state politics but driving many policies with which even the majority of the Republican base disagrees.
The Progressive Opportunity: Progressive States believe these numbers highlight an opportunity for progressives to make inroads in all fifty states. Most progressive policies have far more popular support than past voting patterns would indicate.
Some progressives argue that politicians need to "move to the center" and blur the political lines with their opponents, especially on issues like reproductive rights or other social issues. Yet given that a majority of the population supports Roe v. Wade -- as reflected by all three anti-abortion initiatives being voted down this November -- such an approach is as likely to lose votes from the present progressive base as gain them with new voters.
And if anything, the problem for progressives has not been that its current leaders are seen by the population as too ideological but that they are seen as not standing for much of anything. For example, a 2005 Democracy Corp poll found that only 27% of Americans thought Democratic leaders "know what they stand for" compared to 55% who see GOP leaders as clearly articulating their positions.
If progressives reverse this problem and clearly assert what they stand for and define themselves around popular progressive policies, it leads to two major results:
- First, since you have a whole group of socially conservative, economically progressive voters who know where rightwing leaders stand on social issues those voters support, but are unsure where progressive leaders stand on the economic and environmental issues that those voters also believe in, those voters often deliver their votes to the rightwing leaders who take a clear stance on SOMETHING they support. But if progressive leaders clearly emphasize the progressive policies that those disaffected voters DO support, that give those voters a real choice at election time. And as November election results show, that can lead to electoral gains for progressive candidates.
- Second, campaigns on these popular progressive issues can solidify support among many swing voters and mobilize the base of progressive voters. Such mobilization is important not just for increasing turnout of those voters but for expanding the volunteers who in turn will help recruit their neighbors -- and give those progressive activists a message that they can actually use to win over members of their communities to the progressive cause.
In this way, good policy becomes good politics.
Values: The Need for a Multi-Issue Narrative: Still, it's not enough to just highlight a few popular issues; those issues need to be embedded within a narrative and a broader set of values. An issue, no matter how popular, loses much of its political force when discussed in isolation. The political power of any issue is that it expresses the values that connects that issue to peoples' lives and to other issues that also matter to them. In this way, a politician's support or opposition to any issue becomes symbolic of a larger connection to the interests, values and cultural worldview of a voter. Additionally, without that multi-issue narrative, it is far easier for opponents to pit single issue progressive groups against each other and undermine voter identification with progressive leaders.
Adam Werbach, the dynamic former President of the Sierra Club, has emphasized that, despite general support by the public for environmental policies, they have often failed politically because they were not articulated in ways that united them with those of worker advocates, civil rights organizations, womens' groups, and other progressives through common values and aspirations. But he emphasized the success of environmental advocates in, for example, talking to manufacturing workers who easily embrace environmental values when it is framed as investments in new technologies and jobs and the broader value of strengthening our communities.
Similarly, it's often less specific issues than the lack of a strong pro-family narrative by progressives that alienates many cultural conservatives. The modern economy is hard on families, with both parents often forced to work long hours in a workplace that usually gives them little flexibility to deal with family emergencies. The rightwing will succeed in promoting a narrative that abortion and gay rights supposedly endanger the family unless progressives create an equally strong message of how promoting a minimum wage and family leave and better health care can ease those burdens on the family. With a strong progressive pro-family narrative in place, any particular cultural issue gets debated on its own merits as one of many issues a person may care about, not as a symbol of some more general anti-family bias by progressive leaders.
How this multi-issue narrative is shaped will no doubt differ in each state, but there are core values that progressives share and that will help reinforce that message across states. Progressive States' goal is to help legislators promote these common values and issues that reinforce a narrative about improving the lives of their constituents. All of our policies start literally from where people live and work to promote a core progressive narrative of Rewarding Work, Valuing Families, Strengthening Communities, Growing the Economy and Increasing Democracy in our society. These or appropriate variations can be used to highlight the broad values that tie together the specific issues into this multi-issue narrative.
Outline of the Policy Program: Within this framework of values, Progressive States is initially providing legislative support for six key issue clusters. Although these are obviously not exhaustive of the issues that embody the progressive agenda, they reflect issues where progressives can make some of the most serious political inroads in the present environment:
- Wage Standards and Workplace Freedom -- assuring that American workers receive a decent wage and the freedom of speech in the workplace to stand up for their own interests.
- Balancing Work and Family -- helping create a more family-friendly workplace and society through better family leave policies, paid sick days, support for child care, and access to contraception.
- Health Care for All -- extending health care coverage to all Americans, while helping cut costs for those currently receiving health coverage.
- Smart Growth and Clean Jobs -- promoting energy independence and job growth through new transit options, smart development to strengthen our communities, and new energy technologies.
- Tax and Budget Reform -- creating more equity and accountability in state tax systems, economic development subsidies and public contracts.
- Fair and Clean Elections -- reforming lobbying corruption, establishing public financing for elections, protecting voting rights and election reforms like vote by mail to improve the voting process.
As will be outlined in more detail in the following pages, each of these issue clusters are not only good policy for working families, but they each expand and deepen the progressive coalition by appealing to disaffected, swing and even many self-described conservative voters who nonetheless care about these issues that express the value of work, family, community, economic growth and democracy.
Additional details on legislative models and other supporting materials will be available on this website in coming months.
Wage Standards and Workplace Freedom
Policies to raise wages should be a linchpin of progressive leadership. A higher wage is the best anti-poverty program and a key "pro-family" policy to allow parents to work fewer hours and have more time with their families. It is also one of the best local economic development tools, since it increases local consumer spending of workers receiving a higher wage. Fundamentally, strong wage policies express the progressive value of the dignity of work and that all labor should be rewarded reasonably. Unfortunately, three decades ago, our national progressive leadership began losing focus on such policies and the resultant collapse of wage standards has undermined support for progressive leaders during that time.
Wages have largely been stagnant in recent decades; for many workers -- especially those without a college degree -- pay has actually gotten worse, meaning that this generation is the first one in American history which is not doing significantly better than the previous one. Symbolic of the problem is the fact that the value of the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has declined from $9.12 per hour in 1968 down to just $5.15 per hour in 2005. And because of weak enforcement, many workers don't even receive the minimum wage or overtime, and many receive lower pay because of race and gender discrimination. Employees often fear they will be discharged for expressing any viewpoint contrary to their employer's on work or even non-work-related topics, so it's not surprising that workers find it nearly impossible to speak out against decisions by employers to cut wages and benefits.
States are increasingly taking action to make wage issues front and center to the progressive message-and receiving strong support from the public. Many states have already raised the minimum wage above the federal level and some are already raising them again. A number of states and well over one hundred local communities now require companies receiving public money to pay a "living wage." Other state and local governments have cracked down on wage law violators by increasing enforcement of labor laws.
And public opinion has strongly backed these wage policies. Most polls show support for raising the minimum wage in the 80%+ range and, even under the onslaught of attack ads, voters have supported initiatives to increase the minimum wage by margins as high as 72% in Florida and 76% in Missouri, meaning that roughly two-fifths of Bush voters in those states opposed his position on the minimum wage. Even among small business owners, supposedly the heart of opposition to the minimum wage, a recent Gallup poll showed a plurality of 46% supporting an increase in wage rates.
By embracing the wage issue as a core part of their message, progressives have seen direct political gains. In an era of frayed relationships with the faith-based community, the issue has created an alliance for progressives with religious leaders, especially Catholic and other denominational officials who have made living wage issues a core part of their social justice teachings. It gives progressives what the Rev. Steven Copley, who led a recent successful minimum wage drive in Arkansas, calls "a moral issue, a faith issue and a family values issue" to rally supporters.
And the wage issue is helping turn out disaffected voters to support the election of progressive officials. A recent study on Nevada's 2004 minimum wage initiative detailed how the issue was crucial in helping maintain a Democratic majority in that state's legislature, becoming a crucial voting issue especially for younger women, new registrants, non-college women, lower-income voters, and independent voters of all stripes.
Key Wage Standards and Workplace Freedom Policies
Wage Standards: While Raising the Minimum Wage is the most basic headline wage standards issue, including Indexing the Rate to Inflation so that we never again see a similar thirty-year decline in its value, there are other campaigns to extend even higher wage standards for other sectors of the economy that:
- Use Government Contracts to Raise Wage Levels: State and local governments now purchase over $400 billion of goods and services from the private sector, so conditioning those purchases on contractors meeting prevailing wage and living wage conditions can have powerful effects in strengthening wage standards throughout the economy.
- Leverage Economic Development Funds and Leases: Additionally, attaching living wage requirements to businesses leasing government property, such as airports, or those receiving economic development funds, gives governments leverage over tens of billions of dollars in wages.
- Create Wage Standards in Specific Industries: Even where no public money is involved, some cities establish higher wage standards for various employers where those industries can absorb higher wages, such as larger employers (Santa Fe, NM), those in tourist zones (Berkeley, CA), large hotels (Emeryville, CA), and large retail stores (proposed in Chicago). State efforts to require employers to provide health care also in practice raise industry compensation above the minimum.
Enforcement: Progressives can bring a bit of "law and order" energy to wage and discrimination laws that are on the books but too rarely enforced in many industries through policies to:
- Increase Penalties for Violations: To make penalties more than just a cost of doing business, states can create more serious fines for repeat wage violators, expand compensation to employees whose wages are stolen, deny licenses and government contracts to wage and discrimination law violators, and apply criminal sanctions to employers breaking the law.
- Expand Resources for Enforcement: Along with providing more money for enforcement departments, states can unleash local governments by assuring them the right to establish higher wage rates and additional enforcement locally, expand legal services funding, and enact private attorneys general statutes to allow workers advocates to bring private enforcement actions.
- Hold Employers Accountable for "Fly-by-Night" Operations: To prevent employers from evading labor laws by shifting employees into subcontractors or other sweatshop conditions, states have made businesses liable for subcontractors violations, held shareholders of private companies liable for wage debts in bankruptcy court, tightened the definition of "independent contractors" and better regulated temporary and day labor work.
Protecting Workplace Speech and Freedom to Form Unions: Protecting employee free speech serves both an enforcement function to encourage employee complaints of illegal employer activity and to embolden employees to act collectively to demand higher wages. Such policies should:
- Protect Employees from Free Speech Retaliation: States can enhance protections for workers who bring wage claims against employees, end discrimination against employees for their political views, and ban political indoctrination in mandatory meetings at the workplace. Workers also need greater whistleblower protection against retaliation for discussing potentially illegal actions by employers either with fellow employees or when they go public with their concerns.
- Extend Union Rights to Additional Employees: States can extend labor rights to classes of employees excluded from federal labor law, including farmworkers, domestic workers, public employees, and independent contractors such as many home health aides and day care workers.
- Increase Free Speech Access to Employer Property: States and local governments are increasingly reclaiming lost civic space by opening up malls and other retail store areas that have often replaced traditional downtowns. These measures, plus others that give worker advocates more access to employer property, help increase employees education about their rights.
Balancing Work and Family
Helping parents balance the demands of work and family should underline progressive pro-family policies. With the rhetoric of "family values", the rightwing has convinced large swathes of voters that gay marriage and associated social issues are endangering the family, even as those same corporate conservatives studiously downplay the real stresses on families, especially a workplace that is unforgiving of parents trying to balance the demands of work and home. A core challenge for progressives is to reclaim their image as defenders of the family against the pressures of modern life and work. Providing parents with time to stay home with new children or with sick loved ones, supporting decent child care and early education, and providing support for contraception to assist family planning all express a core progressive vision of valuing families and offering real support to them.
The reality for most families is that it usually takes two paychecks to pay the bills, with a majority of women and men with children under five -- and an even larger percentage with older children -- working outside the home. Despite these pressures on families, the government does remarkably little either to help parents who want to stay home with their children, even when the children are first born, or to help them afford quality child care where both parents need to work. And most workplaces extend little flexibility to parents to deal with the day-to-day challenges of raising kids. They typically punish parents, usually mothers, who take extended leave to care for their children, with fewer promotions and lower paychecks over their careers. And for all that the rightwing talks about preventing abortion, those same conservative politicians often oppose making contraception readily available and fail to extend mothers the extra support they need even if they want to have a child.
States and local governments are taking the lead in promoting policies to make work more family-friendly. Since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act passed over a decade ago, almost all innovative policy to assist families has been coming from the states.
- California became the first state to enact a law providing paid family leave for employees needing to care for a new child or ill family member and the city of San Francisco this November became the first jurisdiction to guarantee all employees paid sick days off to care for family members.
- Oklahoma guarantees pre-K for all its children - becoming a leader in this trend in the states with the highest percentage of 4-year olds in school of any state in the country.
- Twenty-three states have enacted contraceptive equity laws to assure that contraception is covered by insurance companies.
Politically, these issues divide rightwing politicians from their culturally conservative base. When California enacted its paid family leave law, surveys found 85% approval-with even 77 percent of those who identified themselves as political conservatives in support. Polls in Washington State and Connecticut found that 74% and 83% of state voters respectively in support-with an even higher percentage of workers with children under 18 supporting the policy. Even an issue like access to contraception divides the religious right leadership from all but the narrowest base of voters: a June 2006 Wall Street Journal poll found that 81% of Americans saw access to contraception as important in preventing abortions, 73% said contraception should be available regardless of a person's ability to pay, and 58% said the "morning after pill" should be readily available at any pharmacy.
What is remarkable about family leave, early education and contraception issues are the broad-based coalitions that support these policies, from medical professionals to worker advocates to PTAs to advocates for the elderly. So by progressives highlighting these issues, rightwing politicians throwing around "family values" rhetoric can be forced to either assist families in passing such legislation or expose their anti-family rightwing loyalties.
Key Balancing Work and Family Policies
Family Leave: States have increasingly moved beyond the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to help parents who need to take extended time off to care for children or ill family members, including policies that:
- Strengthen Unpaid Leave Laws: Some states extend family leave rules to smaller workplaces, allow more weeks of leave, and guarantee that leave can be taken in multiple increments.
- Provide Paid Leave: To make family leave affordable for families, states provide paid leave for public employees, expand paid disability leave for new mothers, or create a full paid leave program for new parents and for those caring for ill family members.
- Promote At-Home Infant Care: As part of welfare reform, some states have programs that allow low-income working parents to directly provide care for their newborn or adopted children as an alternative to paid child care.
Time to Care: States are taking action to help employees gain the flexibility to take care of family needs with policies such as:
- Days Off for Self and Family Needs: A basic reform is protecting time to attend kids' school activities. Where sick days are provided, employees should be allowed to use them to care for a sick child, spouse or parent. More comprehensively, employees should be guaranteed a minimum number of Paid Sick Days each year for sickness and to attend to family needs.
- Promoting More Flexible Work Options: Banning or limiting mandatory overtime (while protecting overtime pay for those who need it) and promoting options for part-time work are critical policies for increasing the ability of employees to better care for their families' needs.
- Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Family Responsibilities: Non-discrimination statutes, enacted in only a few states, help protect those with family responsibilities from discrimination.
Childcare, Pre-K and Afterschool Programs: Both to strengthen investments in childhood education and to ease the burden on working parents, states are increasingly expanding child care, pre-K and after-school education options that:
- Better Child Care Options: For infants and smaller children, state policies should increase funding for child care and encourage employers to provide workplace-based child care.
- Expand Pre-K: With studies showing the economic and social returns from early childhood education, states are increasingly expanding pre-K programs for three- and four-year olds with the goal increasingly being to make programs universally available to all parents.
- Expand Afterschool Programs: Providing after-school programs expands learning opportunities and strengthens youth supervision in our communities.
- Create Quality Care and Career Ladders: At all levels of care, policymakers should strengthen professional development and improve working conditions for caretakers to maximize the quality and social returns from childhood investments.
Making Contraception Available: Progressives can help parents plan for children when they are best able to support them and help prevent the need for abortion by making conception more available through:
- Contraceptive Equity: To assure that women are not burdened with inequitable out-of-pocket expenses, insurers should pay for contraception on the same terms as other prescription drugs.
- Funding Contraception: States are expanding coverage of contraception and other family planning services through Medicaid programs or through direct funding of community clinics.
- Emergency Contraception Availability: Many states now allow pharmacists to prescribe emergency contraception, require them to provide it to any woman with a prescription, and require emergency rooms to inform sexual assault victims of its availability.
Health Care for All
Solving the health care crisis -- rising costs for everyone and lack of access for tens of millions of America -- should be a top priority for progressive leaders. Rightwing politicians, supported by pharmaceutical and other self-interested corporate lobbies have blocked many reasonable reforms in the past, but state leaders are beginning to enact innovative proposals that are models for reforming the system. There are clear options to help extend quality, affordable health care to all our states' residents.
The crisis in the health care system is clear. 45 million Americans have no health care insurance and for those that do have insurance, the costs of co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses increase by the year, making health care costs the cause of nearly half of all personal bankruptcies. And while two-thirds of working families still get their health insurance through their employer, those responsible employers providing health care find it hard to compete in the marketplace with firms that don't. As irresponsible employers dump health care costs onto individuals and state Medicaid programs, the strain threatens to swamp employer, family and social services budgets across the country.
One key step to health care reform is reasserting the shared responsibility of employers to pay their fair share of health care costs. Under no scenario can individual, family or state budgets replace the current multi-billion dollar employer contribution to health care costs, so states should make it a priority to stabilize that employer contribution to employee health insurance. While comprehensive reform is needed to replace the current fragmented health care structure, states like Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts and major counties in New York in the last year have enacted laws that require employers, especially larger ones able to afford it, to pay their fair share of health care costs. The details may differ but the core principle is to create a level playing field where responsible employers are not forced to drop health care coverage because they face unfair competition from unscrupulous competitors.
Progressives are taking important steps to extend affordable coverage to all our states' residents. Many states are moving aggressively to extend affordable health care to the uninsured population. This has come from a combination of subsidized coverage to more children of working families, better options for the unemployed, and offering subsidized lower-cost insurance options for individuals, families and small businesses, even as states are discussing more comprehensive reforms. One thing progressives should resist, however, are movements by the rightwing to use the rhetoric of "reform" to undercut quality care for those currently receiving Medicaid or other subsidized health options in their states.
Promoting aggressive cost savings from those profiteering from the health care system is one key way to help finance expanded coverage. States are beginning to use their regulatory and bargaining power as large consumers of health care to drive down excessive costs by pharmaceutical firms, insurance companies and health care providers. As lower health care costs in Canada and Europe demonstrate, a system with more universal coverage creates opportunities to drive down costs as special interest groups lose the ability to hide profiteering under the cover of hidden cost-shifting in a patchwork system.
As the health care crisis expands, voter support for dramatic action on health care reform only grows. To highlight the degree of support, a 2003 ABC/Washington Post poll found that even when given a choice between "providing health care coverage for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes, OR, holding down taxes, even if it means some Americans do not have health care coverage," 79% of adults preferred raising taxes to provide health care for all. And among Hispanics, a key emerging swing vote, a June 2005 Democracy Corps poll found that 87% of those voters were more likely to support a candidate promising that "all Americans have access to health care." While challenging in the details, health care reform is one of the most popular political issues for which progressive leaders can fight.
Key Health Care for All Policies:
Maintaining and Extending the Employer "Fair Share" Responsibility for Health Care Costs: To preserve employer contributions to the health care system, different states have begun holding irresponsible employers responsible for health care costs in a number of ways, including:
- Robust Requirements for Large Employers: To create a model that could later be expanded to more employers, Maryland, New York City and Suffolk County (NY) have each enacted laws that require certain large employers to provide a significant health care commitment to their employees.
- Smaller Broad-Based Fee: As an alternative approach, Vermont and Massachusetts enacted small health care fees on employers refusing to provide health care for their employees, but applied this assessment to nearly all employers in those states.
- Disclosure Laws: A limited but important step are state laws that collect and disclose the names of employers whose workers are forced to use publicly funded health care programs like Medicaid, SCHIP and uncompensated care funds in hospitals. Such laws not only shame irresponsible employers but give the public better information in designing new health care reforms.
Extending Health Care to the Uninsured: With the goal of extending affordable, quality health care to all state residents, states are taking a number of steps in that direction:
- Covering Kids: Building on the federal SCHIP program, states have been expanding health coverage to larger portions of the population, the most ambitious being Illinois' AllKids program to offer either free or heavily subsidized options for all children in the state.
- Covering Working Poor and Unemployed: A number of states have extended Medicaid to a larger percentage of the population, thereby expanding coverage and assuring workers that taking a job does not mean losing health coverage for them or their family. Other states like Vermont, Maine and (more tentatively) Massachusetts have enacted legislation to create a subsidized health care option available to a broader range of individuals and small businesses.
- Comprehensive Solutions: A few states such as Wisconsin are debating comprehensive approaches that would combine employer contributions, state resources, and individual co-payments into an integrated system to guarantee coverage for almost all state residents.
Health Care Cost Savings: Since the US spends roughly fifty percent more of its GDP on health care than comparable countries in Europe for generally worse health care results, it is not surprising that states have identified a range of reforms to cut costs by increasing efficiency and eliminating special interest profiteering by health-related companies, including:
- Prescription Drug Cost Controls: States can lower costs through tough bargaining with drug companies for bulk purchases, form purchasing pools with other states, and require "step therapy" regimes to only prescribe more expensive medications after less expensive drugs have been tried.
- Reviewing and Auditing Claims: State Medicaid programs should audit claims and eliminate providers who burden the system with excessive charges or unnecessary care. "Pay for performance" standards should be implemented to improve performance, eliminate wasteful procedures, promote less stressful conditions for caregivers to prevent medical mistakes, and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in care.
- Health Information Technology: If states encourage hospitals and doctors' offices to implement health information technology to better track patients and avoid medical errors, estimates are that states could collectively save $77 billion a year on efficiency savings alone.
- Eliminating Conflicts of Interest: To prevent self-dealing and conflicts of interest, doctors should be prohibited from referring patients to care facilities, prescribing drugs or otherwise making medical decisions where they have a financial interest in the medical referral.
Smart Growth and Clean Jobs
A cornerstone of progressive policy should be a program to create jobs based on clean energy and to promote smart growth in our communities. Rising gas prices, fears of increasing involvement in unstable Middle East politics, and a public desire to protect the environment all reinforce the appeal of an energy independence policy built on switching our economy to an innovative policy of alternative energy sources, energy efficiency and decreasing wasteful sprawl through better transit and housing development policies. Investing in these strategies will not only make America safer and more secure, it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in communities across the country.
Wasteful energy and development policies have created an environmentally destructive cycle of urban sprawl, long commutes and the fragmentation of community life. Over the last few decades, rightwing activists promoted the myth that a strong environment and good jobs were incompatible -- a strategic tool to pit key progressive constituencies against each other. The result of this divisive strategy was the ascendance of a rightwing politics that undermined both wage standards and environmental planning, while creating racial and economic segregation between emerging exurbs and older urban communities. But new progressive alliances are beginning to promote an alternative vision of uniting our communities around a smart growth and clean jobs vision.
By encouraging energy independence, smart growth and clean jobs policies not only protect the environment and our national security, but are tremendous job creators for our communities. It makes logical sense to voters that, instead of shipping wealth overseas to foreign oil producers, the same money could be better spent creating jobs at home. The job creation potential of shifting away from foreign oil sources includes research and manufacturing jobs in alternative domestic energy industries, such as wind, solar, and biofuels; new construction jobs as we rehab buildings for energy efficiency; new work in better transit systems; and new jobs in manufacturing and services industries reengineered for energy efficiency.
Smart growth and clean jobs policies are already serving to create broad-based coalitions and unite different communities. Unions and environmentalists that had often been in conflict in the past have signed up together in initiatives like the Apollo Alliance around these issues. Fishermen and hunters in states like Montana have lined up with conservationists against rightwing property rights activists to defend outdoor areas and expand access to streams and open space. And inner city parents fighting to replace dirty buses inducing asthma in their kids are increasingly allied with suburban voters campaigning to restrain sprawl and create better suburban transit options.
Politically, these programs are wildly popular with voters and help progressives reach many of the swing voters most up for grabs politically. Polling by the Apollo Alliance shows over 70 percent of Americans support a drastic increase in government spending on renewable energy and other programs to move towards energy independence. 87 percent of the public see policies to invest in alternative energy sources as a good way to reduce global warming. And swing voters are more excited about such policies than any other demographic group. Similarly, as the Michigan Land Institute has highlighted, the same exurban districts that had traditionally elected rightwing legislators have lately been voting in local referendum to raise taxes to finance smart growth initiatives and are increasingly electing more progressive leaders to deal with transit and sprawl problems. A good example is the recent election of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who attributes his election victory in 2005 substantially to the strong support he received from emerging suburbs like Loudon County whose residents were attracted to his smart growth proposals.
Key Smart Growth and Clean Jobs Policies:
Smart Growth Development States are taking leadership in smarter development to improve community life, cut energy use, and preserve remaining rural and unspoiled areas with policies that:
- Promote Better Local Planning: States are increasingly requiring local governments to develop plans that encourage high-density, contiguous development, promote agricultural, forest and wildlife preservation, and that create incentives to use private undeveloped areas for recreational use.
- Encourage Transit-Oriented Development: Development funds should encourage residential, industrial and commercial development in near transit hubs and in existing urban areas and first-ring suburbs rather than greenfields.
- Create Affordable Infill Housing: Since exurban sprawl is often driven by high housing costs in metropolitan centers, tools like inclusionary zoning, brownfields restoration, and reclaiming vacant properties create more affordable infill development in urban and inner ring suburban areas.
- Incorporate Broadband Deployment into Planning: Encourage public investment and ownership of municipal broadband networks to reinforce transit and housing development planning.
Fuel-Efficient Transportation: Cars clogging congested highways are a root cause of the US dependence on foreign oil, so states have been taking leadership in policies to cut energy use in our transit systems, including policies to:
- Improve Transit Options: States can increase job access and transportation choice by targeting federal and state transportation dollars to effective regional transit networks such as regional high-speed rail, dedicated bus lanes, local rail transit, and bicycle paths.
- Promote Low Emission, Fuel-Efficient Cars: States can help create new markets for fuel efficient vehicles by upgrading state-owned fleets, providing incentives to use hybrid and more efficient cars, and developing a statewide infrastructure for alternative vehicle refueling.
- Fix Transit Infrastructure: By prioritizing fixing existing infrastructure before new highway construction, states lower motorist repair and injury costs and speed transit in existing areas.
Green Buildings: Energy use by buildings outstrips even energy consumed in transit, so states are increasingly encouraging more energy-efficient building design policies such as:
- Energy-Efficient Public Buildings: By setting green building standards for all public and publicly-financed buildings, states can save both energy and money.
- Tax Incentives and Revised Building Codes: Incentives for retrofits to manufacturing plants and updates to state building codes can decrease future energy use in private construction.
- Appliance Efficiency Standards: States can drive production of a new generation of household and manufacturing goods by applying tighter appliance efficiency standards to a broader range of products than is currently covered by federal standards.
- "Smart" Buildings: Incentives should encourage use of technology to monitor and conserve building energy use and use such monitoring to better coordinate demands on the energy grid.
Energy Supply Alternatives: Policy innovations to diversify energy sources and link clean energy and jobs include:
- Sun, Wind and Bio-Based Power: States have helped create markets for renewable energy through renewable portfolio standards for energy producers, tighter environmental standards, and tax credit incentives for renewable energy production.
- Clean Energy Funding: Through public bonds, pension funds, state-managed investment pools and leveraging federal dollars, states can direct investment dollars into alternative energy production and new technologies.
- Upgrade Energy Infrastructure: Make existing power plants as clean as possible, and discourage plants using older, dirtier technology. Adopt interconnection and net metering standards to encourage renewable energy production by a diverse range of in-state producers.
Tax and Budget Reform
In a debate too often dominated by rightwing tax cut rhetoric, there is a real opening for progressives to demand a fairer, more accountable tax and budget system. State residents are frustrated by governments that they believe tax low- and middle-income residents too much and upper-income people and corporations too little. And hidden economic giveaways to companies receiving tax breaks and government contracts just adds to voter distrust that state budgets serve those with money, not the average taxpayer. In response, a range of reforms at the state level are showing the way to creating more transparent tax and budget decisions, transparency that strengthens voter trust that their tax money is actually going for the important public services that they do support.
A core goal of progressives has to be tax reform that eases the burden on working families while demanding that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. A recent Gallup poll showed that 67% of Americans think upper-income people and corporations are paying "too little" in taxes, while almost no one says that about middle-income or lower-income Americans. This view is a pretty fair complaint by voters, since the wealthy and corporations pay a lower percentage of their income in state and local taxes than do working families. So tax reforms that redistribute the tax burden away from working families are a key part of creating broader political support for new funding for social programs and public investments.
A prime strategy should be promoting truth in budget reforms that track what the tax burden is for different income groups, the extent of corporate loopholes and other tax giveaways, and which companies receive state economic development money and government contracts. Such reforms give the public the tools for a more robust understanding of what really goes on with state money. And once special deals for corporate interests are exposed, it becomes easier to enact reforms that save taxpayers money and frees up resources for other needed state programs.
What we know is that more transparency will highlight that tens of billions of dollars each year are lost to these corporate tax loopholes and subsidies that deliver little in return. One of the grossest signs of the problem is that Wal-Mart has managed to squeeze over $1 billion in government subsidies for opening stores the company was planning to build anyways. Voters clearly are repelled by these corporate deals and loopholes: according to a Center for American Progress poll, the public overwhelmingly (77 percent to 20 percent) supports reforms to increase corporate taxes and "close loopholes used by companies to avoid taxes." In a 2004 Wisconsin poll, four in five Wisconsinites favor closing corporate tax loopholes and a similar poll in Maryland found 86% supporting closing corporate tax loopholes as a desired policy. Progressives need to establish clear policies to eliminate such wasteful use of taxpayer dollars.
The other side of budget malfeasance are deals that often hand fat public contracts to politically connected corporations. All across the country, "pay to play" corruption has led to indictments of public officials selling off government to the highest bidder. And the cost is not only the public trust, but poorly delivered public services, fraud, and the undermining of state economies as companies pay poverty wages and even offshore jobs overseas. Policies that create accountable standards for government contracts therefore prevent corruption and help guarantee that public money is used to promote broader public policy goals.
Key Tax and Budget Reform Policies:
Creating a Fair and Accountable Tax System: Easing the tax burden on working families is a key to creating broader public support for funding needed government programs-and states are helping to accomplish this with policies that:
- Disclose Who Pays for Taxes: The first step is a legal requirement, already enacted in a few states, for a tax analysis that measures the impact of all taxes on residents at different income levels.
- Make Taxes More Progressive: Income, corporate, sales and excise taxes should be reformed to lessen the burden on working families and assure that the wealthy pay their fair share of state taxes.
- Reform Property Taxes: Because home values and associated taxes can rise arbitrarily, property taxes can easily feed rightwing tax revolts unless progressives establish 'circuit breakers' that limit those taxes as a percentage of working families' incomes or create other measures that take the burden off cash-poor homeowners during times of housing inflation.
- Stop TABOR and Other Rightwing Tax Campaigns: A top priority has to be blocking these campaigns; tax limitation initiatives are designed to put budget decisions in a straightjacket that pit different social needs against each other in an induced funding crisis.
Fixing Failed Tax Subsidies: With hundreds of billions handed out in corporate tax subsidies and development deals, states in order to better target money are passing legislation to:
- Review and Sunset Tax Expenditures: Since tax loopholes usually don't appear in annual budgets, some states have required tax expenditure budgets and corporate income tax reports to evaluate how much states are spending on tax subsidies and corporate loopholes and whether they are being effective in promoting public policy goals. An even more comprehensive solution is to automatically sunset all tax subsidies every few years unless they are affirmatively renewed by the legislature.
- Disclose Economic Development Deals: In addition to budgetary disclosure, the subsidies offered in individual development deals to companies should be publicly disclosed, including electronically on the web, to allow better oversight of their value to taxpayers.
- Require Job Quality Standards and Other Reforms for Subsidy Recipients: To assure that jobs created build a strong economy, states and communities increasingly have required subsidy recipients to pay a living or prevailing wage, enacted "clawback" provisions to make company commitments binding, and to promote smart growth in plant location.
Reforming Government Contracts: With scandals revealing how the scramble for government contracts corrupts government and its agencies, states are taking action to assure integrity in the contracting process and guarantee that public contracts strengthen their states' economies through policies that:
- Require Contract Reports and Audits: A few states report partial information on what parts of the budget are going to contractors and who they are, but all could do a better job letting the public know which business interests are getting the contracts for public services and whether they are delivering them in a cost-effective way.
- Force Contractors to Prove Privatization is Cost-Effective: The best approaches are those like in Massachusetts which prohibits private contracting of government services unless private companies prove they can perform those functions more efficiently than government workers -- an automatic check on corruption that studies have found saved that state millions of dollars.
- Tighten Contracting Standards: Where private companies do perform public functions, the tighter the standards for companies bidding on contracts -- including requiring decent wages, a record of obeying relevant labor and fraud laws, and a ban on campaign contributions by contractors -- the less likely incompetent or corrupt companies will get public money.
Clean and Fair Elections
Election reform and eliminating the corruption of money in politics is necessary both to achieve progressive goals and to highlight progressive leaders as reformers of a system with which voters are disgusted. In a post-Bush v. Gore world of outrage over election abuses and current scandals where corporate "pay to play" lobbying deals are constantly in the news, there is an opportunity to push forward reforms that guarantee voting rights and promote elections where voter support, not corporate money, determines the election outcome.
At the core of many voters' frustrations with government is the sense that, too often, politics is for sale. Across the country, 38,000 high-priced lobbyists offering "gifts" to lawmakers swarm state legislatures as corporate campaign contributions grease the wheels and public policy is auctioned to the highest corporate bidder. And for selected legislators, there is the "revolving door" jackpot of a cushy lobbying job when they leave office after serving the industry's interests. Yet despite this tide of money, a number of progressive state leaders are gaining prominence by demanding reforms.
Public outrage over lobbying corruption will easily die out if reforms don't address the fundamental problem of ending corporate dominance of legislatures and elections and promoting clean elections. Restricting gifts by lobbyists, enforcing full disclosure of lobbying activities, and ending the revolving door between government and corporate lobbies are a good place to start. Ultimately, progressives need to demand public financing of elections to cut out the power of monied interests in our politics and thereby stake out clear differences on voting reform against rightwing opponents. The success of "clean money" policies in Arizona, hardly considered a liberal state, emphasizes the potentially broad appeal of such reforms.
As attempts by the right wing to disenfranchise voters become more sophisticated, progressives must work to ensure that elections are fair and instill confidence by protecting voting rights. The rightwing is cynically seeking to use "voter reform" rhetoric to undermine voting rights for poor and minority communities. Progressives need to challenge these restrictive registration and "voter ID" laws that encourage the intimidation of voters and monitor often shoddy implementation of voter databases-struggles that will determine future legislative battles by determining whose voices will be heard at the ballot box. And progressives can champion redemption for those ex-felons who have paid their debt to society and seek to restore their voting rights. To address blatant attempts to disenfranchise voters, progressives should introduce deceptive practices legislation that aims to criminalize voter intimidation.
Progressives also need to become leading voices in demanding fundamental changes in election procedures to make them simpler and ensure access for all voters. Broad-based reforms such as voting-by-mail, as successfully implemented in Oregon and other jurisdictions, and election-day registration can cut through these disenfranchisement strategies and assure that everyone qualified to vote can do so without fear of intimidation.
Public opinion is strongly on the side of progressive leaders fighting to end the corrupting influence of money in politics and standing up for voting rights. These positions tap the most basic American values of promoting democracy. In Connecticut, a 2005 Zogby poll showed 76% of the public supported public financing of elections in that state, while in Arizona, a local KAET poll showed 66% support for that state's clean elections system. More generally reflecting American's profound belief in voting rights, 80% of the public supports restoring the vote to ex-felons who are not currently in prison. Fundamentally, championing fair and clean elections gives progressives a strong political advantage in the public debate.
Key Clean and Fair Elections Policies:
Lobbying Reform: While the problem of lobbyist influence is severe, many state governments have been taking steps to improve the situation by policies that:
- Enforce Disclosure: The best practices include monthly electronic filings, require lobbyists and their employees to report their compensation, an independent auditing authority, and statutory reviews and penalties for late filings of disclosure forms.
- Ban Gifts: A number of states have tried to end the most visible sleaze by banning gifts completely.
- End the Revolving Door: Addressing one of the most insidious payoffs to legislators and government officials, six states have imposed a two-year moratorium before former legislators or other government officials can become lobbyists.
Clean Elections: Fundamentally, the only serious way to end the general corruption of politics by money is to stop allowing corporate interests to fund our elections, including policies to:
- Ban "Pay to Play" Campaign Contributions: Responding to the corruption of government contracting systems, a number of states have passed laws that bar companies bidding on contracts from making campaign contributions to government officials.
- Enact Public Financing: There are variations on public financing of elections, but the most popular currently being promoted requires any candidate to collect a certain number of $5 contributions to establish the seriousness of his or her candidacy, after which the candidate receives a set amount of public financing on the condition that they accept no additional outside campaign contributions. Candidates outspent by privately financed opponents are usually entitled to a limited amount of matching funds.
Election Reforms: Many of the problems facing voters would be eliminated through simplified voting systems, including:
- Election Day Registration: In order to encourage maximum participation, a number of states allow people to combine the process of registration and voting on the same day.
- Early Voting: States that give voters the chance to vote in the weeks leading up to election day have seen increased turnout and helped voters avoid burdensome long lines at the polls.
- Vote by Mail: "No excuses" permanent absentee voting or, more comprehensively, voting by mail cuts the costs of conducting elections, encourages greater participation, and resolves many voting rights and fraud issues by allowing election officials the time to catch problems and correct them.
- National Popular Vote Reform: States are moving to create a multi-state compact to elect the President by the national popular vote, making all states matter and encouraging greater turnout for all federal and state races.
Voting Rights: The core progressive principle should be that every American should have the right to vote without intimidation or harassment, guaranteed by:
- Opposing Restrictive ID Laws: Progressives should block overly restrictive voter identification requirements that do nothing to address the real types of election fraud that occur, yet threaten the rights of eligible voters.
- Fair HAVA Implementation: Progressives must assure that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) does not lead to voters being wrongly purged from state voting databases; when voters are forced to cast a provisional ballot, their vote should be counted in any race for which they are eligible to vote.
- Enacting Deceptive Practices Acts: Individuals who use deception or intimidation to deter voting should be subject to serious fines, criminal penalties and civil actions by aggrieved voters.
- Restoring Voting Rights to Ex-Felons: Most states restore the vote after a person's sentence is finished, some when they are released from prison, and a few never take away voting rights.