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NCSL 2011: Progressives Begin Turning the Tide at National Legislative Summit

(Follow Tim Judson on Twitter: @TimPSN)

In a year that has seen a wave of state legislative attacks coming from corporations and the right wing, a conference of state legislators from all over the nation taking place this week in San Antonio is proving to be a bright spot for those standing up for the middle class and working families.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)  may be little-known outside of state legislative circles, but NCSL plays a significant role in shaping state policy by acting as a lobbyist on behalf of state legislatures in Washington, DC. NCSL’s 2011 legislative summit – taking place this week in San Antonio, Texas – is an annual forum for determining the policy agenda on which NCSL will lobby the federal government for the following year. Issues that have been addressed in previous years range from federal spending allocations to rules governing how states have to implement federal laws (like the Affordable Care Act), and the impact of international trade policy on state and local economies. About 700 state legislators attended this week’s conference, as well as over 300 advocacy groups and trade associations.

Participation in this year’s summit saw a rightward shift in attendance, by both legislators and advocacy groups, reflecting the tectonic political shifts in state legislatures that resulted from the 2010 elections. In addition, many progressive legislators from states with new conservative majorities were not permitted to represent their states at NCSL by their new leadership. In initial committee meetings to decide NCSL policy positions this year, conservative legislators attempted to further capitalize on their electoral victories of 2010 by introducing several destructive policy proposals and issue forums. Earlier this week, over Twitter, we reported on a resolution introduced in NCSL’s Budget Committee to make support for a federal balanced budget amendment a “core principle” of NCSL’s mission. Members of NCSL’s Financial Services Committee debated a resolution calling for a repeal of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 to prevent the types of abuses that led to the 2008 economic collapse.

The good news is that advocates for teachers, workers, healthcare and the environment were prepared and organized – and progressives won nearly all of the battles over these and other important issues. The balanced budget and Dodd-Frank resolutions were defeated handily in their committees. A call for stronger enforcement of mine safety laws was first stripped of an anti-regulatory provision, and then passed in the Labor Committee. Much to the chagrin of those who wish to slash Social Security, the Labor and Budget committees passed a joint resolution demanding strong stewardship of the Social Security program and opposing any attempt to dip into Social Security funds or cut back on benefits resulting from last week’s deal over raising the federal debt ceiling. And the Health Committee passed language calling for strengthened state-based Medicaid programs and ensuring strong state-based health care exchanges, following a year in which PSN worked closely with state legislators to advance strong, common-sense policies under the Affordable Care Act to ensure the health security of  families.

Despite these victories, some destructive, corporate-backed resolutions did succeed, such as an AT&T-backed effort opposing community broadband networks. As readers of PSN’s Stateside Dispatch well know, large telecommunication companies have been lobbying for state laws banning municipal broadband providers in order to reduce competition and fatten their bottom lines. PSN and our allies worked to support legislators in opposition to this short-sighted resolution, which came as supporters of affordable, accessible broadband service have introduced federal legislation to protect local communities’ right to pursue this critical infrastructure.

Still, the primary story that emerged from this year’s NCSL summit was one of common sense prevailing over the economically disastrous and socially divisive proposals that have received so much of the spotlight in the states this year. As lawmakers look towards 2012 sessions, it is clear there is significant desire among many legislators to turn the tide against these destructive ideological attacks and begin renewing the critical work of rebuilding prosperity in our states.