HERE'S A TEST FOR YOU: Quick, name your state legislators. If you're like me, you're not quite sure.
When it comes to my U.S. senators and representative, I'm so obsessed with the shenanigans going on in Washington, DC, that I write them every week. I'm also reasonably engaged with city government. But when I happened to have a conversation with one of my state legislators, I suddenly woke up to the fact that I've completely ignored that in-between level—the state.
I thought I had one state representative and two state senators, but in Washington State, it's actually the other way around. I revealed this abysmal ignorance to one of my two state representatives, a very nice man who complained that he mostly gets vitriolic e-mails from right-wing zealots and would love to hear from people like me. I realized I had never written him.
I'm embarrassed to tell you this. I think of myself as politically engaged. But I'm confessing this because you may be like me. I honor those of you who keep up on what's happening in your state legislature. I urge the rest of us to get on board.
Think of the kinds of legislation we want: real campaign finance reform, universal health care coverage, defense of civil liberties, reduction in greenhouse gases, treatment rather than punishment for nonviolent drug offenders. You name it—it's not happening at the federal level. But in some places it is happening at the state level. The states, of course, are struggling with big deficits and painful budget cuts, partly due to those shenanigans in our nation's capitol. And some steps states are taking increase the injustice in this country. But some courageous legislators are finding ways to take positive actions. Here are a few examples:
• In June 2003, Maine approved a universal health insurance program that will bring health insurance to everyone in the state. This comes on top of Maine's pioneering work to reduce the costs of prescription drugs. The drug companies, of course, contested the drug program in the courts, but the Supreme Court recently upheld Maine's law. Maine is leading the way partly because the state's campaign finance laws enable candidates to win who are not beholden to special money interests (see page 22).
• In April and May 2003, Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont stood up to the federal government in defense of civil liberties. These states passed resolutions saying they would oppose enforcement of any part of the USA Patriot Act that conflicts with constitutionally guaranteed rights. The resolutions are part of a campaign mounted by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (see “Declarations of Liberty,” YES!, Fall 2002) that encourages local governments to take a stand for civil liberties. In addition to the three states, as of the end of July 138 cities and counties had passed Bill of Rights defense resolutions.
• In July 2002, California took on global warming. Despite massive opposition from the automotive industry, the state enacted a law that directed the powerful California Air Resources Board to make rules to achieve “the maximum reduction of greenhouse gas emissions” from motor vehicles. Given California's market of 24 million cars, its rules are expected to spur changes in fuel efficiency standards in the auto industry, even without the federal government's help.
• In April 2002, Washington State brought a touch of sanity to its treatment of nonviolent drug offenders. The new law reduces prison sentences and invests the savings into expanded treatment aimed at helping rather than punishing people with drug problems.
It's clear there are some remarkable legislators at the state level who are winning victories that make a difference. They need our help.
I've now got all my state legislators and the governor entered in my email address book, and their phone numbers posted by my desk. They're going to hear from me. I hope you're way ahead of me on this. But if not, you can find your state legislators' names and phone numbers on the Law Librarians' website: www.llsdc.org.
There are lots of important levels for creative engagement in change—in our personal lives, our communities, and our nation—and we need them all. But let's not forget the state. State government can be a powerful arena for creating a positive future.
Fran Korten is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network. <