Building a Progressive Majority in the States, 2008


On Monday, July 22nd, over one hundred and fifty state legislators, labor leaders, and advocates participated in "Building a Progressive Majority in the States," a joint annual meeting of the Progressive States Network and the National Labor Caucus.  Taking a cue from the opening plenary on progressive policies for an economic downturn,  the conference focused on strategies for confronting the most important issues facing America's working families, including affordable health care, smart immigration policy, workers' rights, green jobs, clean energy, and tax and budget reform.  To address these issues in more depth, PSN policy experts joined state legislative leaders in smaller workshops that gave participants a chance to share best practices and model legislation while developinglegislative priorities and winning strategies for 2009.

NLC President Senator Spencer Coggs (D-WI) and PSN Executive Director Joel Barkin opened the session by emphasizing how in spite of the national media's focus on the presidential election, the real power to improve the lot of working families lies with state legislators and labor leaders.  PSN Co-Chair David Sirota issued a stronger call to action in the states,proclaiming, “"we can get the Congress we want and we can get the President that we want, but if there isn't sufficient pressure in our state legislatures, then we won't get the change that we need."

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Progressive Policies in an Economic Downturn


Sirota moderated the opening panel of legislators and state-based advocates as they explored how states can create progressive policies during an economic crisis.  In her plenary address, PSN Board Member and Georgia Senator Nan Orrock implored the audience to concentrate their actions into an organized front in order to achieve tangible results.  Characterizing the economic environment in the states as "one of the most serious crises that we've seen," she called on progressive legislators to organize themselves around concrete progressive policy agendas, citing the example of regional groups such as Washington's Working Families caucus.  Orrock also emphasized the importance of crafting a united message to counter conservative efforts to defund social services, enact Tax-payer Bill of Rights (TABOR) bills, and eliminate property taxes. 

Jerome Ringo, President of the Apollo Alliance, continued the conversation by expressinghis conviction that America can end its energy dependence, clean the environment, and reduce poverty by focusing on creating green jobs and clean energy.  He talked about how the Apollo Alliance has succeeded in united labor leaders and environmentalists around common strategiesto create healthier communities and a stronger economy.  Among the solutions proposed by Ringo were renewable energy portfolios (already passed by 27 states), investing in green jobs, funding green buildings,  promoting domestic jobs, and leveling the economic playing field to make clean energy more affordable.

Oregon Representative Diane Rosenbaum concluded the panel by focusing on how states can help raise wages for all low-income workers. She stressed the importance of the supporting the Employee Free Choice Act and defeatinganti-labor laws.

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Focusing on the Issues

The meeting continued with breakout sessions for legislators to have strategic discussions about critical issues.  During the healthcare session, Senator Jack Hatch (D-IA) shared some of the behind-the-scenes details of the recent Iowa victory in achieving mandatory healthcare for all children, Maine Rep. Sharon Treat discussed how to combat rising pharmaceutical prices, and Sally Tyler of AFSCME proposed ideas for integrating the battle for universal healthcare into the labor movement. 

In a discussion led by Nathan Newman of the Progressive States Network,  Grey LeRoy of Good Jobs First and Rep. Alice Madden (D-CO), discussed smart growth policies to create better-designed communities in order to improve our lives and decrease the destructive pressures of growth on the environment.  Energy alternatives, green building and green job training were policy areas highlighted during the session.

The immigration breakout session confirmed that progressive leaders have a powerful story to tell after this legislative session.  Not only are the Rightwing's anti-immigrant policies failing, but progressives are successfully moving immigration policies that improve the lives of all workers, families, and communities.  PSN Outreach Director Marisol Thomer stressed four positive policies that legislators can work toward in 2009: wage law enforcement, New Americans integration programs, policies protecting immigrant witnesses and crime victims, and resolutions that address public benefits and immigrants' contributions to federal taxes.  The group also discussed how to frame the issues using community values, the positive turnaround in the Iowa legislature following a consensus-building visit by PSN, the success of Illinois' New Americans program, efforts to bridge the "black-brown" divide, and how immigration is driven by global trade issues.

A final session addressed tax and budget policies for 2009.  Key reforms discussed in the session included increasing tax and budget transparency, changing property taxes, ensuring fair income and estate taxes and closing corporate tax loopholes, fixing failed tax and development subsidies, and altering government contracts to stop privatization.

The day ended with national radio commentator, author, humorist, and progressive leader Jim Hightower speaking about the state of progressive politics.  Hightower believes that the true political spectrum is not right to left but top to bottom, and he has become a leading national voice for the 80% of the public who no longer find themselves within shouting distance of the Washington and Wall Street powers at the top.

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After the PSN/NLC meeting closed, the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) began its four day session.  Facing a $40 billion shortfall in the national economy, thousands of legislators and advocates gathered from around the country to find solutions for their states.  The struggle to confront drastic budget shortfalls has taken a heavy toll on many policy issue areas, including healthcare and education.  Several legislatures, in an effort to keep a balanced budget as required by their states’ constitutions, have chosen to cut health and human services and raise college tuitions instead of raising taxes.  Throughout the conference, PSN and its allies encouraged legislators to advocate alternative progressive budget solutions to help states through the economic downturn.

Otherhot topics at NCSL included upcoming redistricting litigation, immigration reform, and clean energy.  PSN held breakout sessions with targeted groups of legislators throughout the conference in order to develop specific policy proposals and messaging strategies to advance a winning progressive agenda in these and other issue areas that await state leaders as they head into the 2009 legislative sessions.

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