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The Best Bills of 2011

Many new policies pushed forward this year have promised gloom for everyday Americans. Here are 13 positive, progressive state bills that could turn things around in the years to come.
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License plate map photo by Whirling Phoenix

Working families across the nation may find themselves feeling thankful that state legislative sessions have either reached or are nearing their finish lines for 2011.

After an historic shift in the partisan control of state legislative chambers following last November’s elections, conservatives found themselves controlling new levers of power in many states.

They used them.

From a non-stop assault on the rights of workers, immigrants, and women, to power grabs making it easier for corporations to influence the political process and harder for historically disenfranchised populations to vote, to balancing state budgets on the backs of children and the vulnerable by cutting schools and health care in order to give millionaires and CEOs even bigger tax cuts, the measures that grabbed headlines in the states this year have been almost uniformly bad news for the economic security of the vast majority of Americans.

But dig just a little beneath the headlines, and some glimmers of hope are clearly visible.

In every region of the nation, in red states and blue states alike, momentum increased behind a variety of common-sense, positive, pragmatic measures in the states that contrast sharply with the extreme and unpopular priorities of the right. Even as moderate and progressive lawmakers found themselves forced to play defense against an unprecedented assault on the middle class in many states, they still were able to advance measures to rebuild their state economies, protect the middle class, and build healthier and stronger communities.

And in states where the corporate right did not control the agenda, some landmark legislation passed that may point the way forward for future years in other states—when they will surely find themselves out of power once again.

"Spending on tax breaks should be treated the same as spending on programs ... by putting this information online, as is currently the case with other areas of the budget, we move one step closer to that goal." Governor John Kitzhaber

In no particular order, below are 13 positive, progressive pieces of legislation from around the states that advanced in 2011, and that represent some of the key policy solutions featured in the Progressive States Network’s Blueprint For Economic Security. Some are more prominent, others less so—but all advanced policies that promise to continue gaining momentum across the nation in the years to come.

(This list is not intended be a comprehensive survey of positive, progressive legislation that moved this year—be sure to email us at and let us know about the best legislation in your state this session!)

 Click or scroll to view the year's 13 best state bills:

1. Oregon: Accountability for  Corporate Subsidies
5. Connecticut: Victory on Paid Sick Days for Workers
9. Vermont: Community Broadband for Local Economies

2. Illinois: A Responsible  Approach to Revenue

6. Texas: Fighting Wage Theft

10. Connecticut: A Path to a Green Economy

3. Oregon: Partnership Banks

7. Maine: Supporting Work-Sharing

11. Colorado: Business Support for Tuition Equity

4. Maryland: To Counter Citizens United, Take it to Shareholders

8.  Oregon: Bringing Broadband to Rural Areas

12. California: An Immigration Alternative

13. Connecticut: Health Security for Families
  1. Oregon’s HB 2825: Increasing Accountability for Corporate Subsidies

    Last month, Oregon’s legislature unanimously approved a bill to provide increased transparency of state spending on economic development subsidies. The legislation (HB 2825) would require the Department of Administrative Services to publish detailed information regarding the amount, purpose, and intent of tax incentives directed to corporate entities on the state's transparency website. State Rep. Phil Barnhart (D), who sponsored the bill along with State Rep. Kim Thatcher (R), commented that “spending on tax breaks should be treated the same as spending on programs,” and that “by putting this information online, as is currently the case with other areas of the budget, we move one step closer to that goal." Governor John Kitzhaber recently signed the bill into law.

    The victory in Oregon mirrors legislative movement across the country to increase transparency in the budget process as states continue to experience the lasting impacts of the economic downturn. This past session, lawmakers in several states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia, championed initiatives to augment accountability of state spending on corporate tax breaks, subsidies, and contracts—all measures that would aid in rebuilding prosperity in state economies in the years to come.

  2. Illinois’ SB 2505: A Responsible Approach to Revenue Shortfalls

    In January, Illinois lawmakers approved legislation to raise the state corporate and personal income tax. In explaining the need for the effort, Gov. Pat Quinn explained that the state's "fiscal house was burning." Faced with a revenue shortfall of $15 billion, legislators garnered the political will to enact sensible means to generate sorely-needed revenue. The plan is expected to raise approximately $6.5 billion over the next year and primarily consists of temporarily increasing the state's flat personal income tax, from 3 to 5 percent, and corporate tax, from 4.8 to 7 percent.

    Several other states followed Illinois' lead this year and looked to enact revenue measures to alleviate fiscal pressures, including Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, and Vermont. Connecticut stands out among states for looking towards more progressive means to closing shortfalls and supporting working families, through increasing the income and corporate tax, raising the tax on certain luxury items, broadening the sales tax base to include some services, and enacting a state-based earned income tax credit (EITC). As countless studies have shown, during an economic downturn, progressive revenue generation is far preferable to deep cuts, as it allows states to provide funding for public structures, save the jobs of teachers, nurses, and firefighters, pump money into the economy, and protect middle class families, children, and the elderly.

  3. Oregon’s SB 889: Partnership Banks to Rebuild Prosperity in the States

    Lawmakers in several states are considering proactive economic development policies to confront bleak fiscal and economic outlooks. One of the most innovative is the creation of partnership banks similar to North Dakota’s—the only state in the country to have its own bank. At a basic level, a partnership bank is capitalized by state money, publicly governed, can serve as a depository for state revenue, and returns a portion of its profits to the state. Rather than sending taxpayer funds to increase the profits of big banks, a partnership bank keeps deposits in-state. As such, it reduces state dependence on large financial corporations and allows states to invest dollars in local communities. Generally, the objectives of partnership banks are to:

    • Team up with local banks to keep public dollars in the community
    • Create jobs and encourage economic growth
    • Increase state revenues and keep money in-state
    • Strengthen local and community banks by improving access to capital
    • Decrease debt costs for local government
    • Provide more resources for small businesses

    In several states—Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New York, Oregon (SB 889), and Washington—legislation was introduced to either create or assess the feasibility and economic impact of the establishment of a partnership bank. (For more information on partnership banks, see this report by Demos and this online clearinghouse maintained by Center for State Innovation.)

  4. Maryland’s HB 93: Countering Citizens United by Taking it to the Shareholders

    Maryland’s HB 93, passed this year, requires reporting of independent expenditures and electioneering communications aimed at influencing Maryland elections when the total expenditure surpasses $10,000. Perhaps most importantly, the legislation requires that any corporation, union, or other membership organization that files an independent expenditure include the relevant information about the expenditures in any periodic reports to its shareholders, members, or donors. Maryland is the first state in the country to require transparency of this sort, and it is an important step toward ensuring that corporations are accountable to those whose investments stand to be impacted due to any consequences of political spending.

 The information that must be provided includes:

    • The identity of the entity making the expenditure
    • The business address of the entity making the expenditure
    • The amount and date of the expenditure
    • The name of the candidate or ballot measure
    • If they are supporting or opposing the candidate or ballot measure

    Finally, the entity must either provide this information in their annual report to members or stockholders or post a link to the independent expenditure report on its website within 24 hours of filing the report, which must be maintained at least until the end of the election cycle. Efforts to make corporate political spending more accountable to shareholders took a variety of forms this year. Legislation to improve disclosure and/or require shareholder approval prior to independent political spending was introduced in at least 16 states in 2011, including New Mexico, where a bill to increase disclosure passed the Senate. Additionally, by the end of 2011, at least 45 publicly-traded companies will have faced shareholder resolutions intended to improve corporate accountability from within.

  5. Connecticut’s SB 913: As Other States Attack Workers, Groundbreaking Victory on Paid Sick Days

    Connecticut made history this year by enacting the first state-wide law guaranteeing workers the right to earn paid sick days (SB 913). Rep. Zeke Zalaski, Chair of the House Labor and Public Employees Committee emphasized the national importance of the bill, saying “this is a great opportunity for us to send a message to the rest of the country that we in Connecticut value our workers. This is a landmark bill that is as important as other precedent setting gains like child labor and civil rights laws.” 

Passage of the bill paved the way for other states and cities to follow suit this year:

    • Last week, the Philadelphia City Council passed a local paid sick days bill.
    • The Massachusetts General Court Joint Labor Committee is expected to hold a hearing on a state-wide bill this summer (S 930/ H 1398).
    • A proposed Seattle ordinance, just introduced in June, already enjoys the support of the mayor and a near-majority of council members.
    • In Denver, a citizen initiative for a local ordinance is expected to be on the November ballot.
    • And momentum is building for New York City’s paid sick days bill, which still enjoys support of a strong majority on the City Council.

    The victory in Connecticut has enabled worker advocates in these and other places across the country to wrest momentum back from conservatives in Wisconsin, who enacted a law preempting municipal paid sick days ordinances and quashed the will of Milwaukee voters who overwhelmingly enacted such a law in 2008.

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