In the year since conservatives took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and legislative bodies in states across the nation, we’ve seen them move their agenda with alarming disregard for both democracy and the economic security of the nation. From the irresponsibly provoked debt ceiling “crisis” to the wholesale obstruction of job creation efforts, conservatives on the national stage took an approach of reckless political brinksmanship over the past year that put the entire economy at risk. And from Wisconsin to Alabama and beyond, 2011 saw conservatives in the states—buoyed by support from their corporate allies in the 1%—launch attack after attack on workers, women, voters, and immigrants.
But the new year brings new hope for progressives looking to turn the tide—hope that, for the time being, largely resides not in the halls of Congress but in the 50 states. Elections in every corner of the country last November—from Arizona to Maine to Ohio—saw voters decisively reject a range of right-wing legislative attacks. The shady practice of corporations writing state laws to benefit their own bottom lines (through organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council) has been subject to an increasing amount of sunlight and public attention. And the public sentiment behind the explosive growth of the Occupy movement last fall has remained, even as many physical occupations have been forcibly dismantled. On issue after issue, public opinion remains firmly in favor of policies that will begin to address the needs of the 99 percent.
While progressives in the states will be focused on a range of economic priorities, here are four specific policies that state lawmakers are advancing in 2012 that are practical, popular, and are set to gain real momentum as new legislative sessions kick off starting this month:
1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Proposals that Can Pass in Red and Blue States Alike:
When President Obama introduced the American Jobs Act last fall, he included in it a handful of elements that had already been passed with bipartisan support—and proven successful—in many states. These included the banning of employer discrimination against the long-term unemployed, saving jobs by allowing work-sharing as part of unemployment insurance programs, and requiring that states “Buy American” in their contracting practices in order to create jobs here at home. These measures have shown both that they work and that they can pass even in conservative-controlled chambers.
In 2011, New Jersey passed a bill prohibiting employers from discriminating against job applicants based on their current employment status, and similar bills are set to move across the nation in 2012. Likewise, work-sharing—a pro-worker measure currently in place in 23 states that allows workers to keep their jobs and gives employers flexibility to weather a downturn by allowing workers to earn partial UI benefits while working part-time—passed in states, including Pennsylvania and Maine, with conservative legislatures. And “Buy American” provisions are also set to move in a slew of states (such as Nebraska) this year.
2. Creating State Banks to Foster Local Economic Growth:
With revenue and budget crises certain to be in the headlines once again in many states in 2012, lawmakers are increasingly looking towards structural changes that will ensure they can rebuild and sustain prosperity—even as conservatives once again look to cut much needed public services to the bone.
While demanding corporate transparency and accountability—and requiring that the 1 percent and corporations pay their fair share in taxes—will continue to be a priority for progressive state lawmakers in 2012, they will also be attempting to capitalize on widespread public frustration with big banks by proposing the creation of state development banks similar to the one in place for over 90 years in North Dakota. The creation of state banks would allow states to invest dollars in their local communities rather than line the pockets of Wall Street CEOs. Additionally, according to one study, state banks have the potential to close some current state deficits by anywhere from 10 - 20 percent. The measure will be hotly debated in Oregon this year, where it has the potential to pass, and introduced in many other states as well.
3. Restoring the Minimum Wage to Grow the Economy:
One of the simplest ways for states to jumpstart their economies and address the needs of the 99 percent—all without increasing spending—is through restoring the minimum wage. Studies have shown that raising the minimum wage provides a direct boost to economies by giving lower-income workers more purchasing power.
While proposals are under consideration in many states, including New York and Missouri, perhaps the most exciting development is in Illinois, where legislation is under consideration that would restore the minimum wage to its historic 1968 value: $10.50 per hour, after adjusting for inflation. Other states are considering measures that would index the minimum wage so that it rises with inflation, or to boost it by lower amounts. In 8 states, automatic increases took effect on January 1st, providing much needed economic stimulus; in Washington, the rate is now at $9 an hour.
Regardless of the specific proposals, raising the minimum wage has proven incredibly popular, with approval for the policy ranging from 75 to 90 percent in recent polls. The basic principle that no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty clearly resonates with the public, and bodes well for continuing efforts to raise the minimum wage and grow state economies in 2012.
4. Rejecting Arizona’s Immigration Approach, Businesses Line Up Behind Tuition Equity
After Arizona enacted SB1070, its controversial “show me your papers bill,” in the summer of 2010, conventional wisdom had it that states would be lining up to copy this destructive, enforcement-only approach to immigration. Prominent copycat bills in states like Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina notwithstanding, the vast majority of states have rejected similar bills. This widespread rejection has been due in no small part to the efforts of the business community, which is acutely aware that the deep economic pain and social upheaval that has accompanied the passage of SB1070 copycats is simply not good for business, or for a state’s economic prospects.
Over the last two years, states have increasingly turned towards common-sense legislation that welcomes the economic contributions of (and taxes paid by) immigrants and non-immigrants alike. One of the chief ways they are doing so is by advancing tuition equity measures. Already enacted in 14 states, these laws allow talented undocumented students to attend state universities and colleges at the same tuition rate as their U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident classmates. Many are on the agenda again in 2012, including in Colorado, Hawaii, and New Mexico. Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston, a former high school principal, reflected on the reason such laws see growing support: “Colorado’s future depends on forward-thinking approaches to immigration—ones that focus on nurturing talented youth and putting our tax dollars to better use than destroying immigrant families.”
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