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Building a Progressive Majority: Policy Options for 2008

 

Last November, we saw voters taking the first steps to repudiate the right-wing ideology and institutions that have long dominated much of the political landscape in our states. For too long, we have seen right-wing 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.

In 2005, a group of legislators, non-profit leaders and advocates formed the Progressive States Network (PSN) to provide day-to-day support to state legislators and community organizations in each state to help make that happen. The efforts of PSN and the progressive allies we work with in the states are beginning to bear fruit, as we detailed in our recently published Taking the Lead: A Report on State Legislative Successes in Enacting Progressive Policy.

But these achievements are only the beginning. The need for bold progressive leadership has never been greater as our states confront challenges of stagnant wages, global warming, exploding health care costs, and civic disgust with elections dominated by monied interests.

This week, the Progressive States Network is releasing its policy options package:

Building a Progressive Majority in the States:
Policy Options for 2008

For an HTML version of the report, click here.

This package of reforms for 2008 provides a range of options progressive legislators and allied advocates can use to build an enduring progressive legacy in our states. Although these are obviously not exhaustive of the issues that embody the progressive agenda, the issues detailed in this set of policy options reflect opportunities where progressives can make some of the most serious political inroads in the present environment.

 

 

Even with last November's victories, progressives confront a political landscape shaped by a well-organized right-wing network that has worked for decades to establish political power in the states.

As we outlined in our February 2006 report, Governing the Nation From the Statehouses: The Rightwing Agenda in the States and How Progressives Can Fight Back, groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other allied right-wing groups have often hijacked public policy in the states. Tens of millions of dollars of corporate money have poured into local research think tanks and lobbying organizations to create an "echo chamber" around their issues, promoted policies that have often wedged progressive groups against each other while cementing a coalition around a rhetoric of tax cuts and right-wing social issues.

Yet as we have seen, new opportunities have opened up for bold, progressive leadership. Even most social conservatives in polls complain that power is too concentrated in the hands of large corporations and support stronger environmental protection, better labor laws, and health care for all. And the rising number of young voters are more progressive on both social and economic issues. Where progressives have often failed is where voters don't actually know where their leadership stands, but where voters see progressive leaders standing up strongly for working families, progressives can win, making good policy good politics.

The key is to create a strong narrative around multiple issues that highlights the values for which progressives stand: Rewarding Work, Valuing Families, Promoting Justice, Growing the Economy and Increasing Democracy. The political power of any issue then expresses the values that connect that policy to peoples' lives and to other issues that also matter to them. Within this framework of values, Progressive States is initially providing legislative support for seven key issue clusters. Although these are obviously not exhaustive of the issues that embody the progressive agenda, the issues detailed in this set of policy options reflect opportunities where progressives can make some of the most serious political inroads in the present environment:

The following sections outline the policies that can make these goals a reality and the full report includes greater detail, updates on recent developments in the states, and additional resources to support policy in each policy area.

 

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 workers earning a higher wage will contribute to an increase in local consumer spending. Fundamentally, strong wage policies express the progressive value of the dignity of work and that all labor deserves a reasonable reward.

Key Policies:

  • Wage Standards: While raising the minimum wage is the most basic headline wage standards issue, there are other campaigns to extend even higher wage standards for other sectors of the economy that Use Government Contracts to Raise Wage Levels, Leverage Economic Development Funds and Leases, and Create Wage Standards in Specific Industries.
  • 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, Expand Resources for Enforcement and Hold Employers Accountable for "Fly-by-Night" Operations.
  • 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, Extend Union Rights to Additional Employees and Increase Free Speech Access to Employer Property.

 

Balancing Work and Family

 

Helping parents balance the demands of work and family underlines progressive pro-family policies. With the rhetoric of "family values," the right-wing has convinced large swathes of voters that gay marriage and other hot-button social concerns 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.

Key Policies:

  • Family Leave: States have moved beyond the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to help more parents who need to take extended time off to care for children or ill family members, including Strengthening Unpaid Leave Laws, Providing Paid Leave and Promoting At-Home Infant Care.
  • Time to Care: States are taking action to help employees gain the flexibility to take care of family needs with policies such as Paid Sick Days, Promoting More Flexible Work Options and Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Family Responsibilities.
  • Childcare, Pre-K and After-school 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 Create Better Child Care Options, Guarantee Pre-K for all Kids, Expand After-school Programs and Create Quality Care and Career Ladders.
  • Access to Contraception: Progressives help parents plan for children when they are best able to support them and prevent the need for abortion by making conception more available through Contraceptive Equity, Funding Contraception, and Emergency Contraception Availability.

 

Health Care for All

 

Solving the health care crisis ”” rising costs for everyone and lack of access for tens of millions of Americans ”” is a top priority for voters and progressive leaders. While right-wing politicians, supported by pharmaceutical, insurance and other self-interested corporate lobbies have blocked many reasonable reforms in the past, progressive leaders recognize that as they expand access to health care for families they can build the base of support for health care for all of us. In fact, state leaders are enacting innovative proposals that are models for reforming the system that help extend quality, affordable health care to all our states’ residents.

Key Policies:

  • Covering All Kids: Covering all kids, primarily through the federal-state SCHIP program, is a good first step towards achieving health care for all residents. Options for states include Improving Access to SCHIP, Ensuring Funds for Kids Care, and Removing Financial Barriers to Participation
  • Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Residents: The overwhelming majority of Americans agree that the government should ensure access to quality health insurance, which can be done through Expanding Medicaid, Comprehensive Solutions, and Health Care Reform Commissions.
  • Maintaining Employer Responsibility: too preserve employer contributions to the health care system, states have begun holding employers responsible for health care costs in a number of ways, including Equitable Payroll-Based Financing, Employer Pay-or-Play Requirements, and Disclosure Laws.
  • Health Care Cost Savings: To cut waste and free up funds to cover the uninsured, states have identified reforms that increase efficiency, improve quality, and eliminate health care industry profiteering, including Prescription Drug Cost Controls, Ensuring High Quality and Health Insurance Regulations.

 

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 based on 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 good quality jobs in communities across the country.

Key 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, Encourage Transit-Oriented Development, Create Affordable Housing and Incorporate Broadband Deployment into Planning.
  • Fuel-Efficient Transportation: Cars are a root cause of the US dependence on foreign oil, so states have taken leadership in policies to cut energy use in our transit systems, including policies to Improve Transit Options, Promote Low Emission, Fuel-Efficient Cars, and Fix Transit Infrastructure.
  • 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, Tax Incentives and Revised Building Codes, Appliance Efficiency Standards, and "Smart" Buildings.
  • Energy Supply Alternatives: Policy innovations to diversify energy sources and link clean energy and jobs include Sun, Wind and Bio-Based Power, Clean Energy Funding, Promoting Utility Decoupling, and Upgrading Energy Infrastructure.

 

Tax and Budget Reform

 

In a debate too often dominated by right-wing 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. Hidden economic giveaways to companies receiving tax breaks and government contracts only add 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 can strengthen voter trust that their tax money will actually go towards the important public services that they do support.

Key Policies:

  • Tax and Budget Transparency: Greater sunshine on tax and budget policies is the first step to a fairer tax system, better public services and the end to special interest corporate deals. Options include Disclose Who Pays for Taxes, Review Tax Expenditures, Document All Contracts, and Disclose Economic Development Deals.
  • Making Taxes More Progressive: In order to reform income, corporate, sales and excise taxes and lessen the burden on working families, state leaders can Promote Fair Income and Estate Taxes, Reform Property Taxes, Close Corporate Loopholes and Stop Right-wing Tax Campaigns.
  • Reforming Government Contracts: The scramble for government contracts often corrupts government and its agencies, so states can take action to assure integrity in the contracting process and guarantee that public contracts strengthen their states' economies through policies that Force Contractors to Prove Privatization is Cost-Effective and Tighten Contracting Standards.
  • Fixing Failed Tax Subsidies: With hundreds of billions handed out in corporate tax subsidies and development deals, states can better target money by passing legislation to Sunset Tax Expenditures, Require Job Quality Standards and Other Reforms for Subsidy Recipients, and Stop Tax Subsidy Bidding Wars.

 

Fair and Clean 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 climate of outrage over election abuses 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.

Key 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, Ban Gifts, and End the Revolving Door.
  • 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 and Enact Public Financing.
  • Election Process Reforms: Many of the problems facing voters would be eliminated through simplified voting systems, including Election Day Registration, Early Voting, Vote by Mail and National Popular Vote Reform, and Verified Paper Ballots.
  • 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, Fair HAVA Implementation, Enacting Deceptive Practices Acts and Restoring Voting Rights to Ex-Felons.

 

Broadband Buildout and Technology Investments

 

Why High-Speed Internet Broadband Matters: In a wired world, communities that are networked with broadband are more likely to attract the jobs and industries that can build a 21st century economy. State leaders increasingly see universal broadband deployment as a key component of increasing local democratic participation, promoting local economic growth, creating "smart" communities that are healthier and more energy efficient, and closing the widening gap in economic opportunity.

Key Policies:

  • Universal and Affordable Broadband: States are working to encourage universal broadband access through a range of policies, including Protecting Community Services, Mapping Access, State Broadband Investments and Buildout Regulations.
  • Leveraging Broadband for Energy, Health Care and Broadband Savings: Investments in broadband infrastructure will easily pay for themselves when states use the technology to leverage cost savings across the economy with policies such as "Smart Buildings," E-Medicine and Distance Learning.
  • Local Technology Investments: State governments increasingly are using public money to leverage local entrepreneurial use of technology infrastructure to create jobs, including State Venture Capital Funds and "Emerging Domestic Markets" Investments.
  • Promoting Media Justice: Beyond investing in physical infrastructure, states need to invest in education and community media infrastructure to overcome the digital divide, including Education and Job Training, Funding Community Technology Centers and Supporting Alternative Media.

 

Conclusion

 

As we outline in more detail in the full report, 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 which express the value of work, family, justice, economic growth and democracy.

Additional details on legislative models and other support materials will be available on the website at Progressive States (www.progressivestates.org) in coming months.

We will also use the Stateside Dispatch to regularly updates state legislators and advocates on policy proposals and victories (as well as defeats) across the country on these and many other progressive issues as well.

Please have colleagues and friends go to http://action.progressivestates.org/signUp.jsp to sign up.