How do we move a progressive agenda in our states?
That was the question that brought together North Carolina state legislators and advocacy leaders for a program last Tuesday, March 20th, which was organized by the Progressive States Network in association with local and national partners, including the Center for American Progress, the Center for Policy Alternatives, SEIU, ACORN, Democracy North Carolina, The Common Sense Foundation, North Carolina Justice Center, Institute for Southern Studies, North Carolina AFL-CIO, and the North Carolina Conservation Network.
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Tools for Building a Progressive Majority
Leading off the program was a section on how progressive legislators can face down the big money lobbying campaigns and organized efforts by the rightwing to pump up hot button "wedge" issues. Progressive States board member, Texas Rep. Garnet Coleman  and PSN Policy Director Nathan Newman outlined how progressive legislators around the country are increasingly able to frame their efforts in ways that lead to success.
Rep. Coleman introduced the Progressive States Network as a tool to help legislators network more effectively with each other and key advocacy organizations to help strengthen the progressive message. By providing direct support in drafting legislation, providing rapid response during the legislative term and building message support both locally and nationally, Progressive States helps create multi-state movement for a range of critical progressive issues.
Newman followed Rep. Coleman with a powerpoint program that highlighted polling data, demographic changes and messaging lessons from around the country that are strengthening progressive success. The presentation is available here  (large file), but a few key points are highlighted below:
The Challenge from the Rightwing: As Progressive States outlined in our report last year, Governing the Nation from the Statehouses , corporations have created an elaborate lobbying apparatus in the states, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been used by corporations ranging from ExxonMobil to pharmaceutical companies to drive legislation into statehouses.
Building a Multi-issue Agenda: Progressives are being successful when they unite diverse groups around a common agenda and framing them as a narrative tied to values, rather than just as a laundry list of legislation.
Public Opinion is With Progressives: Overwhelmingly, the American public supports key progressive policies like raising the minimum wage, providing health care for all, making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, promoting renewable energy alternatives, and expanding voting rights. And as local polling highlighted  at the event shows, this is as true in North Carolina as anywhere:
- 61% of North Carolina voters support indexing the state minimum wage to increases in the cost-of-living.
- 61% of North Carolinians favored “having state government sponsor a plan to provide health insurance for everyone”?, while an even larger margin of 64% of North Carolinians supported a plan to provide health insurance for all uninsured children.
- 69% percent of North Carolinians support giving counties the authority to charge impact fees on developers to help pay for schools, rather than increasing local property taxes.
Demographic Changes are Strengthening Progressives: The even better news is that demographic changes will only reinforce public opinion in support of progressive goals, if we can fully engage new voters.
- With 42 million Americans aged 18 to 29, we have a voting block that more strongly supports the minimum wage, environmental protection and social issues like abortion and gay rights.
- Hispanics immigrants accounted for 27.5 percent of the North Carolina’s population growth from 1990 to 2004 and 57 percent of the total enrollment growth in North Carolina public schools between school years 2000-2001 and 2004-2005.
As these new groups vote in greater numbers, states like North Carolina will solidify tens of millions of new progressive voters.
Even the "exurbs", what others call "emerging suburbs" are looking better for progressives, as new demographics in those communities show solid support for progressive goals on health care and especially more environmentally sound planning among commuters locked in gridlock.
On the Issues: National Trends in Enacting Progressive Policy
In the next session, speakers outlined examples of legislative success around the country in key issues areas which have helped reframe progressives as defenders of families and reform, in addition to showing how multi-state coordination has often helped legislative success.
Clean Energy & Jobs: Progressive States Policy Specialist Mijin Cha highlighted the explosion of legislation in recent years working to create greater energy independence and jobs at home:
- Laws promoting renewable energy have been enacted across the country, including recent legislation requiring that 25% of all energy be renewable by 2025 in Minnesota and a trend to increase existing renewable requirements, like the effort in Colorado that aims for 20% by 2020. North Carolina is debating a similar RPS bill this session.
- Multiple states are now requiring that public buildings be built based on "green building" standards to reduce energy use and creating incentives for private construction to follow those standards.
- Smart growth planning is also creating more energy-efficient communities using tools such as mixed-use zoning, transit oriented development, and inclusionary zoning.
Health Care for All: Highlighting the nationwide movement on health care issues, Rep. Coleman outlined the key components of new initiatives in the states. Most plans being proposed come with some combination of requiring employers who don't provide health care to assume greater responsibility for funding health care, extending public funds for greater coverage, and cost controls to open up additional monies for care.
The first step in many states has been using the SCHIP program to broadly extend health coverage to more children. Even in a state like Texas, where progressive legislators are in a distinct minority, Rep. Coleman emphasized progressive legislators had been able to use issues like children's health care to keep legislators accountable and created a policy context that led to opposition defeat in both primaries and general elections.
Working Families Issues: Brian Kettenring, Southern Director of ACORN , laid out a succession of key campaigns strengthening wage and income rights for working families in recent years:
- Building on local living wage campaigns across the country, state minimum wage laws have now been enacted from Florida to Oregon, including in North Carolina just last year.
- North Carolina itself was one of the leaders in raising the alarm years earlier on predatory lending and enacted one of the strongest early laws.
- More recently, multiple states have introduced bills guaranteeing a minimum number of sick days for employees, with strong campaigns appearing across the country in support.
Fair & Clean Elections: Regina Eaton of Demos  emphasized the importance of protecting voting rights and key reforms like election day registration, which is being promoted in states across the country this year. North Carolina HB 91  would allow one-stop registration and voting during the early voting period, a two-week timeframe before the actual election day.
Budget and Tax Reform: PSN's Nathan Newman outlined a number of areas where legislators are increasing tax fairness, relieving the property tax burden on working families and making sure that corportations are paying their fair share.
Bringing It Local: Implementing Policy in North Carolina
The last part of the briefing gave local organizations a chance to lay out their legislative goals for the 2007 sessions. Speakers included:
Diallo Brooks from the Center for Policy Alternatives  highlighted their work in multiple states, providing resources to legislators on a range of policy issues.
Brian Buzby from North Carolina Conservation Network  outlined the three top environmental priorities of environmental organizations in North Carolina, including a Renewable Portfolio Standards, land conservation, and developing a mass transit system.
MaryBe McMillan from the North Carolina AFL-CIO  laid out their broad agenda for working families from the minimum wage to workers compensation to greater freedom of workers to form unions in the state.
Bill Rowe from the North Carolina Justice Center  outlined their agenda  for the session, including increasing access to afforable housing, increasing support for working families, protecting consumers from predatory lending, improving access to health care, improving tax fairness and strengthening public education.
David Mills from the Common Sense Foundation  outlined their key goals, ranging from promoting the effectiveness of bilingual education to criminal justice reform to the right to contraception.