Last week, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a decision stating their intention to mandate that states participate in the controversial, ineffective, and costly “Secure Communities” immigration enforcement program. This decision generated confusion and controversy given that the Secure Communities program had previously been described by DHS officials as a voluntary option for states. The announcement last Friday afternoon, which came as a surprise to many advocates, immediately invalidated the roughly 40 agreements that DHS had entered into with individual states or localities regarding their implementation of the program – agreements which the department once argued were required, but which are they now claim are unnecessary.
During 2011 legislative sessions, most states chose to close severe budget gaps without revenue increases, instead opting for further damaging and deep cuts to critical education, health care, and social service programs. However, now that most sessions have ended, lawmakers, business leaders, and community groups in a number of states appear to be increasingly interested in taking revenue increases to voters as an alternative.
Earlier this week, a bill to end employer discrimination against unemployed job seekers was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Blumenthal (D-CT), Brown (D-OH), and Gillibrand (D-NY). The Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011, also introduced last month in the House of Representatives, would prohibit employers and recruiting firms from refusing to consider potential hires solely because they are out of work or from including language in a job posting that discourages individuals from applying based on their employment status. As the national unemployment crisis deepens, and as long-term unemployment rates stubbornly remain at record levels, this Congressional legislation mirrors similar legislative efforts underway in states that seek to ensure that such discrimination does not aid in driving millions to permanently leave the workforce.
This week, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a decision stating that birth control will be part of the preventive health care benefits that must be covered under health insurance plans at no cost to consumers. The decision means no out-of-pocket costs, no cost sharing, and no deductible for women who have little to no current access to birth control. The new requirement is part of a comprehensive set of guidelines for women’s preventive care released this week by HHS as part the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to cover certain preventive services.
On Tuesday, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 to increase the debt ceiling and avoid default, marking the end of a manufactured crisis that saw the right wing engage in hostage-taking antics that threatened to push the nation toward economic catastrophe. The deal makes it even more apparent that there exists a pernicious dichotomy between Washington's priorities and the actual economic experience of average American families. While the wealth gap continues to widen, unemployment remains abysmally high, and states reel from historic revenue shortfalls, federal discourse over the past month instead centered on the depth and extent of programmatic cuts. And while the exact details are uncertain, it is clear that states stand to lose substantial federal funding for vital programs — such as education, public safety, and elderly care — in the coming years.
As comprehensive immigration reform remained stalled in Washington, D.C. in the first half of 2011, common-sense state legislators across the nation took up the fight in their legislative sessions, defeating expensive and misguided enforcement bills that targeted undocumented immigrants and their families. Despite the deluge of SB 1070 copycat bills promised by anti-immigrant groups, attempts to mimic Arizona’s anti-immigrant law largely failed, as did a far-right effort to rewrite the U.S. Constitution by revoking citizenship for children born in the United States. Encouragingly, state legislative sessions saw a wide variety of innovative and common-sense proposals that sought to expand opportunity for all residents, both immigrant and native-born, through approaches emphasizing access to education, workforce development, and community policing.
Lawmakers confronted massive budget shortfalls, persistently high unemployment, and myriad fiscal and economic obstacles during 2011 state legislative sessions. With states still reeling from effects of the economic downturn and with federal investment in state economies receding, lawmakers considered drastic measures to confront budgetary constraints. Though many state revenue outlooks improved slightly in the past few months, partly as a result of tax increases passed in recent years, it was little comfort as states faced collective shortfalls of $103 billion in fiscal year 2012. As sessions progressed, it became painfully apparent that conservative lawmakers were not interested in job creation, economic growth, or support for those who have been hit hardest by the recession, but rather ideologically-driven platforms that sacrificed fiscal sustainability and the economic security of millions of families for the benefit of the affluent and huge corporations.
(Note: With legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this week’s Dispatch is the first in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different critical policy areas across the fifty states.)
The national debate over job creation has reached a new low in a labor dispute involving a Boeing airplane manufacturing plant in South Carolina — a debate that is playing out just as reports show conservative state policies have demonstrably failed to create jobs this year and have instead resulted in declining wages. In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed suit against Boeing for locating the new plant in the Palmetto State in retaliation against its union workforce for legal work stoppages in the past. A central tenet of collective bargaining law is that employers may not take actions to punish workers for taking legal actions in a dispute, such as going on strike. The NLRB’s suit would require Boeing to remedy its illegal action by relocating production of its 787 Dreamliner passenger plane to Washington State, where Boeing’s employees are members of the International Association of Machinists union (IAM).
As 2011 legislative sessions draw to a close, many states continue to wrestle with budget shortfalls. Some adopted responsible measures this session to rebuild prosperity through a balanced approach that included revenue generation, while others went down a destructive path relying exclusively on job-killing cuts. The same revenue debate that played out in the states is now coming to a boil in Washington D.C. as policymakers consider ways to raise revenue to address the federal deficit — including one misguided proposal that would result in more corporate welfare and provide little benefit for the nation’s economic security.