The Worst of 2011 in the States: 14 Harmful, Dangerous Bills You May Not Have Noticed

There has been no shortage of distressing right-wing legislation coming out of the states in 2011.

Beginning almost immediately with the gaveling-in of sessions in January, newly empowered conservatives unleashed a torrent of attacks aimed directly at workers, women, children, immigrants, historically disenfranchised populations, and the very existence of the middle class.

Coordinated multi-state efforts like the assault on collective bargaining, extremist restrictions on reproductive rights, broad Arizona-style attacks on immigrants, and attempts to institute new barriers to voting through Voter ID requirements all repeatedly made national news.

While in previous years, right-wing efforts in the states to roll back social and economic progress and enrich corporate donors usually received only a small slice of the national spotlight, this years’ state legislative sessions saw the battles taking place inside (and outside) state capitols across the nation move to center stage and receive enormous scrutiny.

While these power grabs and devastating policies received attention like never before in 2011, the groundwork for each had been laid years — sometimes decades — in advance. Likewise, even as the unyielding and extremely unpopular assault on the middle class focused national attention on the states in 2011, mobilizing moderates and progressives in opposition, other dangerous but perhaps less-noticed proposals also appeared in statehouses, in what was perhaps a preview of the right-wing playbook in the years to come.

Of course, it was not entirely bad news in 2011. In last week’s Dispatch, Progressive States Network brought you our take on some of the best and potentially overlooked positive, progressive pieces of legislationthat moved in the states this session, many of which reflected policy priorities set out in PSN’s 2011 Blueprint for Economic Security. For this Dispatch, we wanted to highlight some of the most dangerous bills that may have also flown under the radar for many observers this year: attacks on immigrants, infrastructure, state economies, workers, the sick, the unemployed, the middle class, government accountability, and even democracy itself.

In no particular order, here are a few of the most harmful state bills affecting families this year that you may not have noticed — some which passed, and many of which were defeated. Click through below to read more about each; they may show up soon in a state capitol near you.

1. Michigan’s HB 4214: “Financial Martial Law” Gives Sweeping Powers to Emergency Managers

In March, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4 (HB 4214) into law, dramatically increasing the powers of state-appointed emergency financial managers to run struggling cities, school districts or municipalities with no oversight from local elected officials. Capitalizing on the effects of the economic downturn, which has hit Michigan particularly hard, the bill was seen by many as a direct affront to democracy.

The law granted sweeping new authority to appointed managers, including powers to cancel or renegotiate union contracts, sell off assets and privatize public services. In Detroit, the school district’s emergency manager, Robert Bobb, announced shortly after the passage of the bill that 8 schools would be closing and 45 others bid out to private charter operators; in April, he issued layoff notices to every teacher and staff member in the district.  In Benton Harbor, manager Joseph Harris issued an executive order effectively stripping all city boards and commissions from taking any action whatsoever.

These managers, whose salaries are paid by local residents, make anywhere from $150,000 to $350,000 a year. Just last week, more than 30 Michigan residents filed a lawsuit against Public Act 4, naming Synder as a defendant, citing among other things, that the bill effectively eliminates citizens’ voting rights and is a violation of the separation of powers.  At the time of filing, John Philo of the Sugar Law Center, lead counsel on the lawsuit, said, "We haven’t seen this form of government put in place over a locality before. It says you're not going to have local elected officials. They'll have one person with absolute authority. People across the country assume that if there's going to be a government, it's going to be an elected one."

It is not just Michigan residents who need to be concerned about what some have termed “financial martial law” being imposed in their communities. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have both reportedly considered similar measures in the past months.

2. Arizona’s SB 1001: Cutting Health Care for the Most Vulnerable

With Medicaid currently the topic of much contention in deficit talks in Washington, D.C., Arizona’s conservative-controlled legislature and some of its agencies led off the debate this year with some particularly irresponsible legislating. Early in the 2011 session, conservatives in Arizona’s legislature decided, along with Governor Jan Brewer, to allow the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) to kick childless adults with severe health issues off the state’s Medicaid program. The law, which is set to take effect July 1st, may hit Arizona's homeless population particularly hard. "We're worried that this is going to result in the neediest populations being discontinued from having health insurance," attorney Tami Johnson of the William E. Morris Institute for Justice told the Arizona Republic back in April.

In addition to being morally unconscionable, Senate Bill 1001 also went directly against the will of the voters, who had approved Proposition 204 in 2000 to allow these very same populations to be eligible for the program. Additionally, AHCCCS has said they want to deny coverage to parents who fall between 75 and 100 percent of federal poverty line. In recent weeks and months, story after story has emerged of Arizonans whose very lives hang in the balance while new cuts to this critical program are set to take effect.

Many other states have seen similar proposed and enacted cuts targeting the health coverage of vulnerable populations. While efforts in Arizona’s courts to prevent the cuts from taking effect on July 1st seemed likely to fail this month, in Washington, the state Supreme Court ordered a reversal to some of the worst cuts, restoring care to 3,000 children.

3. Maine’s LD 1333: Rolling Back Consumer Health Care Protections

While conservatives in many states across the nation focused their fire on the federal Affordable Care Act this by attempting to prevent its implementation in the states, joining partisan lawsuits, and promoting symbolic (and often unsuccessful) nullification resolutions, they have also aimed directly at rolling back highly successful existing state reforms, needlessly endangering the health security of those they represent with no concern for the increased costs to consumers. One such example this year took place in Maine, where conservatives gave the green light to insurers to run rampant with premium increases through lax rate reviews. As one advocate described the rollback to a reporter, “It’s hard to think of anything the insurance industry didn’t get.”

Maine had always been a good stewardof “prior approval,” meaning insurers had to ask the state to allow the insurer to raise rates on premiums. In the past, the former Insurance Superintendent had pushed back on rate increase requests of up to 23 percent. Now, thanks to this repeal, insurers who sell products to small businesses and individuals are exempt from this requirement. According to the new law, insurers do not have to ask the state permission to raise rates on individual and small group plans as long as the increase is 10 percent or less and spends 80% on health care costs. This essentially means every year rates can go up by 10% amount virtually unchecked — a victory for the right and their allies in health insurance boardrooms across the nation, but a loss for Maine families struggling to pay the bills.

4. North Carolina’s HB 129: A Corporate Attack on Community Broadband

After multiple attempts in the past four legislative sessions, large telecommunications providers finally succeeded this session in preventing municipalities from facilitating broadband services in North Carolina. Despite admitting that industry-supported legislation would result in poorer service for communities, Governor Bev Perdue failed to veto House Bill 129, allowing it to become law without her signature. The law is particularly detrimental to rural areas, where the private sector has refused to provide service because they do not believe it would be profitable. Along with South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Arkansas, North Carolina this year joined an unfortunate pack of 16 states that restrict their cities, municipalities and towns from building and operating broadband networks. The timing could not have been worse, as the fates of many states’ uncertain economic recoveries continue to depend on investing in 21st century infrastructure like broadband in order to support small businesses and put their residents back to work.

Other unfortunate corporate wins over consumers on telecommunications policy this year have included states like Wisconsin and Texas deregulating the phone industry, completely stripping away protections from consumers who use this essential utility to communicate with the outside world. Under the guise of reforming or modernizing regulations, telecommunications companies’ efforts to advance their own interests in state legislatures may mean an end to the only access that many have to the outside world.

5. Florida’s HB 7005: Cutting Unemployment Insurance to Reduce Corporate Taxes

Several states have seen lawmakers take cynical and economically-damaging approaches to revenue shortfalls by slashing unemployment insurance (UI) for those hit hardest by the economic downturn. Driven by flawed right-wing ideology, Florida legislators this session approved an extreme measure that not only undermines the economic security of Floridians, but also threatens recovery in a state already deeply affected by the lasting impacts of the recession and currently with an unemployment rate hovering around 11 percent, the third highest in the nation.

State lawmakers approved legislation, HB 7005, that would make Florida the only state in the country that ties UI to the state's unemployment rate. As the National Employment Law Project (NELP) described, "under the House version, the national standard of 26 weeks of benefits would no longer be available to unemployed Florida workers. Instead, the maximum number of weeks would vary from 23 weeks when the state’s unemployment rate is as high as 10.5 percent to as low as 12 weeks when the rate drops to 5 percent." Florida provides an average weekly benefit of approximately $228 to jobless workers who qualify for unemployment benefits. According to NELP, the state ranks 46th out of 50 nationwide in benefits provided to jobless workers.

The bill will also make the process for qualifying for UI even more stringent and reduce by 10 percent the tax rate that companies are required pay to cover the benefits. While undermining jobless workers and families, the bill would also cut business taxes in a state that already inefficiently directs hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to corporate tax breaks and subsidies. Florida currently has the second most regressive tax structure in the country and this initiative would only exacerbate the burden placed on vulnerable populations and the middle class.

Research indicates the widespread positive economic and fiscal impact of supporting jobless workers. On the other hand, studies also consistently demonstrate the negative effects of pursuing massive corporate tax cuts. Even conservatives have admitted that this legislation, along with other right-wing measures advanced in Florida this session, does nothing to address fiscal or economic pressures. State Sen. Dennis Jones, a Florida Republican, confirmed as much when reflecting on the 2011 session, that "this is certainly not the 'jobs, jobs, jobs' that the public expected. If we added everything up, we're probably in the negative this session for jobs, not the positive."

6. New York's S 5856: “Hard” Property Tax Cap Means Hard Times for Working Families

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a misguided compromise with conservatives in the state legislature to place a hard cap on the annual growth of property tax revenues — a bill he is now set to sign into law. The legislation, S 5856, will limit revenue growth in municipalities to the lesser of either a 2% annual increase or the rate of inflation. The only exception would require a restrictive super-majority vote of 60% in municipalities where the residents wish to opt out of the program. This proposal will lead to a drastic reduction in essential services for hardworking New York families and place an additional burden on middle class communities which have already been battered by the economic downturn.

Hard caps create systemic revenue shortfalls in which municipalities lack the resources necessary to fund services, including education and public safety, leading to teacher, police, and firefighter layoffs and deterioration of essential programs.  Other states — such as California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Illinois — that have tried this approach have learned the hard way just how harmful it can be for state residents.

One need look no further than Massachusetts — the supposed success story of property tax caps — to see the vast reduction of municipal services that will inevitably result. Throughout that state, schools were closed, libraries were shuttered, educational programs were reduced, senior centers were eliminated, public works projects were cut, police officers and firefighters were laid off, and even street lights were turned off in order to weather the storm of revenue pressures. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also outlined some of the deleterious consequences of severe property tax caps, which include increasing disparities between wealthy and moderate income districts, disproportionately impacting the fiscal security of low-income communities, and placing the majority of the tax burden on the middle class.

7. Wisconsin’s SB6: Privatized Commerce Department Invites Conflict of Interest and Corruption

In addition to persistent attacks on workers, higher education, and the middle class, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also signed legislation earlier this year, SB 6, to replace the state's Commerce Department with a public-private entity. Several conservative officials have floated this flawed concept as a means to increase efficiency, but the effort to privatize economic development functions in the state comes at a great cost to taxpayers. As Good Jobs First detailed in a report, “rather than making economic development activities more effective, privatization is often little more than a power grab by governors and politically connected business interests” — a power grab that can lead to misuse of taxpayer dollars, corruption, conflicts of interest, and lost accountability. For instance, Michigan, a state that has a semi-privatized commerce department, last year distributed $9.1 million in tax credits to a convicted embezzler. Generally, privatization comes at the expense of long-term community investments, sustainable budget policy, taxpayer protections, transparency, and public accountability.

Gov. Walker has boasted this session that “Wisconsin Is Open For Business,” but judging by his budget priorities, he does not envision the state open to workers’ rights or fiscal responsibility. These and other policies have made it clear that Gov. Walker is utilizing current fiscal circumstances to advance a broad and economically-damaging agenda — a disastrous conservative template for the states — that supports the interests of the rich and large corporations while threatening the economic security of the middle class.

8. Maine’s LD 1376: Repealing Four Decades of Same-Day Voter Registration

Despite the fact that Election Day registration (EDR) has helped tens of thousands of voters participate in the political process during its 38-year existence in the state of Maine, this session, Governor LePage signed LD 1376 into law, repealing the successful reform. With only two incidents of fraud documented since EDR’s enactment in 1973, it is no surprise that neither the bill’s sponsors nor the Secretary of State could justify the repeal as a measure intended to address fraud. Rather, supporters ignored protests from the Maine Town and Clerks Association — who actually called for an amendment to preserve EDR — and passed a politically-motivated bill that will disproportionately affect low-income, minority, and youth voters just in time for the 2012 elections.

Maine was the first state in the country to adopt EDR and consequently went from being ranked 21st in voter turnout in 1972 to being tied with Minnesota for the highest voting rate in the country in the 2010 general election. EDR had also enjoyed bipartisan support throughout Maine’s history — a Republican-controlled legislature actually spearheaded the reform back in 1973.

In addition to higher-profile attempts to suppress the vote in states, like Voter ID laws, EDR is also under attack in states across the nation. A similar bill was also passed in Montana but was vetoed by Governor Schweitzer, and legislation in North Carolina is currently being debated.

9. Florida’s HB 1355: Reducing Voter Participation by Shortening Early Voting Periods

Though Florida’s elections omnibus bill this session was atrocious on several fronts — it ended a longstanding practice that allowed voters to change their address between counties on Election Day and cast a regular ballot, while imposing draconian requirements on third party voter registration groups — one of its worst provisions was a change to early voting laws that will, unsurprisingly, impact minorities the most. The new law, which was signed by Governor Scott but is still waiting for pre-clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice, reduces the number of in-person early voting days from fourteen to eight and eliminates Sunday voting.

More than half of all votes in Florida during the 2008 election were cast early or by absentee ballot. Then-Governor Crist actually chose to extend early voting hours after millions of people lined up to vote early, some waiting hours to cast their ballots. Overall, 1.1 million African American voters cast ballots in the state, 54% of whom voted at early voting sites. Notably, African American voters comprised 32% of the statewide turnout on the Sunday before the election (those taking advantage of Sunday voting were most likely churchgoers traveling to the polls after religious services.)

Other states have seen similar partisan-driven attempts to reduce early voting, many of which have been enacted. Bills to scale back early voting have been signed into law in Wisconsin and Georgia, while legislators in Ohio simply need to reach a concurrence vote before language is sent to the Governor. North Carolina is also considering similar legislation.

10. North Carolina’s HB 36 – Flawed E-Verify Program Extended to All Employers

On immigration enforcement, North Carolina went from bad to worse this session when it enacted HB 36. Prior to its passage, North Carolina required only state employers to use the flawed federal system known as E-Verify, which studies have shown has a 50% error rate and would throw hundreds of thousands of documented workers out of a job. With the passage of HB 36, North Carolina now mandates the use of E-Verify for all employers. The bill makes an exception for private employers with fewer than 25 employees and some seasonal workers, but its high cost to small businesses and lost state revenue will severely burden the North Carolina economy. E-Verify places the greatest burden on businesses with fewer than 500 employees and currently costs small businesses approximately $81 million per year.

Many states, such as Michigan, wisely said no to E-Verify this session because of its high cost and heavy opposition from small businesses and farm bureaus. Other states proposing Arizona-style anti-immigrant bills have taken different approaches to E-Verify. While Alabama mandated E-Verify for all employers in its SB 1070 copycat bill this session, Indiana’s E-Verify provisions in its SB 1070 copycat effort were far less reaching due to concerns expressed by major corporations such as pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly based in the state.

All in all, efforts in other states to expand E-Verify similar to the bill in North Carolina largely failed this year. At least 20 states proposed E-Verify bills this session, but the only ones to enact bills with E-Verify provisions not part of a SB 1070 copycat bill were North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

11. North Carolina’s HB 744: Requiring Immigration Status Checks in Public Schools

Anti-immigrant state legislators in North Carolina introduced a bill earlier this session that would have required public school principals and administrators to determine the immigration status of students enrolling in the state’s K-12 schools. The proposal, HB 744, initially stipulated that the information obtained about students’ immigration status would not be transmitted to immigration authorities, and was simply intended to track how much money was spent educating undocumented students — though in practice it is clear such a law would strongly deter immigrant parents from enrolling their children in school. In addition, similar proposals have been deemed unconstitutional in the past all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which reaffirmed a child’s right to a primary education in the nation’s public schools — regardless of their immigration status — in a landmark 1983 decision, Plyler v. Doe.
Most recently, the US Departments of Justice and Education issued guidance to school districts across the nation that requiring immigration status checks of public school students was likely unconstitutional, violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and should be avoided.  After concerted pressure from immigrant and civil rights organizations, North Carolina’s HB 744 was significantly amended to allow students to submit a copy of their birth certificate to verify their identity, rather than the previous requirement to submit proof of valid immigration status as proof of identity. Nevertheless, requiring school administrators to serve as de facto immigration agents makes little sense, let alone being unconstitutional. Governor Bev Perdue signed HB 744 into law late this month.  

12. Wisconsin’s SB 23 / AB 41: Preempting Milwaukee’s Popular Paid Sick Days Law

In 2008, Milwaukee residents overwhelmingly voted to enact a paid sick days law. And in May of this year, advocates won a two-and-a-half year legal battle, which cleared the way for the law to finally be implemented. Ever modeling themselves on the “Grinch who Stole Christmas,” however, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and conservative legislators quickly pushed through a bill to stop Milwaukee from enacting this enormously popular law. SB 23 preempts cities and counties from passing any ordinances that raise family and medical leave standards above those established in the state’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) law.

The Wisconsin bill was one of several troubling preemption measures targeting local workers’ rights laws, including:

  • Tennessee’s HB 598 / SB 630, which would have preempted all local ordinances from raising labor standards — something we can expect to see more of in the future.
  • Florida’s HB 241 /S 982, targeting both the Wage Theft Ordinance enacted by Miami-Dade County last year, and another under consideration in Palm Beach.

These other measures did not pass, but along with a bevy of bills to prohibit local governments from including prevailing wage standards in contracts for construction and other services, it is clear conservatives view preemption as an important part of their strategy to close off all avenues for protecting workers’ rights.

13. New Hampshire’s HB 133: Erasing the State Minimum Wage

Legislators in the Granite State overrode a veto by Governor John Lynch this session to enact a law that caps the state’s minimum wage at the federal rate. Since the existing law sets the wage at $7.25, equal to the federal rate, the legal effect of the bill is largely symbolic. However, the actual impact will be more insidious: by removing all reference in the law to previous wage rates, HB 133 effectively erases any statutory record of the state’s role and frames future debates about raising the minimum wage in terms of superseding federal law.
Gov. Lynch argued forcefully for protecting the state’s right to establish labor standards: “New Hampshire has had a minimum wage law since 1949, and neither our citizens nor our businesses have called for its repeal. There is no need to undermine our state's economic strategy or cede our state authority to the federal government, which is why the governor vetoed the bill.”

Happily, New Hampshire was the only state to enact an anti-minimum wage law, though several were introduced — particularly in states where residents just a few years ago voted to enact or raise the minimum wage. For instance, the Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 61) that would have stripped the major provisions of the 2006 minimum wage law, despite the fact that 76% of voters approved it.

14. Tennessee’s HB 1498 / SB 1672: Blocking Construction Workers from the Bargaining Table

In addition to the nationwide landslide of bills attacking prevailing wage, Tennessee passed a law (HB 1498/SB 1672) that also undermines collective bargaining rights for construction workers. The so-called “Freedom in Contracting Act” prohibits state agencies and local government projects using state funds from including a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) requirement. PLAs and Labor Peace clauses are often used in government contracting to guarantee that labor disputes don’t cause construction delays, revenue disruptions, or other problems that are costly to taxpayers.

Idaho enacted a similar law early in the session (S 1006), which was promoted as a “Right-to-Work” bill and even included a redundant ban on prevailing wage — redundant because the state had already repealed its prevailing wage law in the 1980s. Building trades unions in the state are mounting a legal challenge to S 1006 and a companion bill (S 1007), alleging they violate the National Labor Relations Act and the Constitution.


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