PSN's Legislative Leadership Retreat: Policy and Organizing for 2010

Last week in Detroit, state legislators and key organizational allies of Progressive States Network came together at our annual Legislative Leadership Retreat to plan our legislative work for 2010.  Recognizing both the challenges and opportunities facing progressives in the present economic and political environment, participants planned an ambitious policy and outreach strategy for the coming year.  Held in conjunction with the Economic Analysis Research Network (EARN) annual conference of policy organizations, the event was a chance to discuss how progressive legislators could work more effectively with each other and with organizational allies.  The event was a chance to celebrate the achievements of Progressive States Network and its progressive legislators and organizational allies, while planning for an even more successful future for the Network.

Even as PSN continues to provide technical support for a wide range of policies through our Stateside Dispatch and other venues, participants in Detroit discussed PSN's focus on key policies for 2010.  These included addressing the fiscal crisis in the states, ongoing work on health care, workers' rights and election reform, and a specific six-bill agenda (discussed below) that we collectively intend to introduce in states across the country to help strengthen the progressive message nationally going into the 2010 elections.  A series of plenaries and shared workshop sessions with allies from the EARN network also highlighted key challenges for state leaders, from rebuilding the manufacturing sector throughout America, repairing our broken financial system, promoting family-friendly policies, and establishing a collaborative federalism between state and federal policymakers.

Participants also discussed PSN's goal to strengthen what we describe as the "legislative wing of the progressive movement" by better coordinating the work of progressive legislators with grassroots groups throughout the states.  Along with strengthening national networks around particular issues, the conference outlined the goal of more in-state meetings where local progressive legislators and organizations can share PSN's national policy goals and their local agendas and create a venue for greater collaboration between legislators and local allies. 

Table of Contents:

- Highlighting Successes by Progressive States Network

- Why States Mattered in 2009

- Policy Program for 2010

- Building the Legislative Wing of the Progressive Movement

- Moving Towards 2010

Highlighting Successes by Progressive States Network

PSN Co-Chair Texas Representative Garnet Coleman led off the conference by describing both the goals for PSN in the coming year and the accomplishments of the organization since its inception four years ago.

As Rep. Coleman outlined, PSN's policy support in the states has only grown in those four years:

  • PSN has produced over 300 twice-weekly Stateside Dispatches, providing resources to over 8000 state legislators and organizational leaders for state legislative work on a wide range of progressive policy areas, including direct web links to over 5,000 resource organizations, research reports, and pieces of state legislation. 
  • PSN has also hosted 38 national conference calls to highlight key policies ranging from paid sick days to immigration to financial reform, provide experts available to answer questions on details, and encourage dialogue on coordinating strategy to advance policy. 1360 state leaders have participated in those calls, including 269 legislators or aides and staff from 614 organizations across the country.
  • PSN has produced multiple reports on key policies and held several national events bringing together legislators with policy advocates, community leaders, and union allies, including national events in Washington DC, at the Annual Summits of the National Conference of State Legislatures, and at our own national conferences.

In the states, PSN has provided technical support to individual legislators on hundreds of individual policy campaigns, from fighting toxic toys to promoting broadband deployment to challenging subprime lenders over foreclosure long before the financial collapse.  On a broader scale, PSN has mounted broader campaigns networking legislators and advocates, including a few notable projects:

  • Supporting a Progressive Recovery Plan: As the federal recovery plan was enacted, PSN worked with allies early on to assemble one of the most comprehensive resources on how to implement the recovery plan in the most progressive way possible.  This was supplemented by multiple Stateside Dispatches and national conference calls to assist state leaders on implementing aspects of the recovery plan in the states.
  • Fighting Rightwing Wedge Issues Like Immigration: With legislators facing attacks around the immigration issue, PSN has worked with key organizational allies to supply both positive policy options and direct technical support to help legislators in Iowa, Kansas and states around the country so they could fend off bad policy and build a positive pro-worker approach to integrating new immigrants into our communities.
  • Mobilizing Legislators on Health Care Reform:  After a number of years supporting state health care policy campaigns, PSN legislators came together with national health care organizations to highlight state legislator support for progressive federal health care reform.  This support culminated in 880 legislators signing a letter in support for reform developed by PSN with the support of organizational allies, which was highlighted by national press conferences at the White House with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy Ann-Deparle, Director of White House Office of Health Care Reform, and on Capitol Hill with Senator Tom Harkin. Out of this effort, the White House formed an official White House Task Force of State Legislators for Health Reform, which includes many key legislators from PSN and which PSN staff has been helping to coordinate.

Why States Mattered in 2009

As legislators discussed plans for 2010, it was clear that state policy continues to matter in driving national policy and politics.  PSN Executive Director Nathan Newman outlined in an opening presentation (see here for the powerpoint) how frustrations over the federal filibuster just reinforce the reality that states remain the ultimate "check and balance on federal inaction" and the ongoing source of innovation in American public policy. 

As we've noted in the past, US Senators supported by just 7 million voters out of a population of over 300 million Americans -- just 3% of the voting population -- have the potential power to block all substantive federal legislation -- a hurdle that allows monied special interests to delay and water down federal legislation.  While the extraordinary success of progressives in the 2008 elections gives us hope of real progress of federal legislation, notably it was gains in the states in recent years on health care, clean energy policy and workers' rights issues like the minimum wage that helped force progressive ideas back into the national debate.

And as the focus of the federal recovery plan on the states made clear, state-run programs remain the engine of domestic policy spending.  By strengthening state budgets around the country, the federal recovery plan helped bolster the economy and avoid the danger of what Paul Krugman called in the New York Times "50 Herbert Hoovers" in the states conducting mass layoffs that would have catastrophically increased the economic collapse.  Instead, states mostly used a balance of federal funds, budget cuts and revenue increases to maintain health care and other programs critical to working families.

And states continued to lead the way a range of policy successes and innovation, including pharma reform, pioneering public options for health care, wage law enforcement, promoting the freedom to form unions, early voting reforms, supporting gay marriage, and anti-foreclosure legislation.

Progressives continue to face a well-financed right-wing in the states but the Progressive States Network has played an increasing role in providing the support for legislators and allies to keep progressive ideas on the forefront of debate in the states. 

Policy Program for 2010

At the 2009 Legislative Leadership Retreat, PSN discussed a three-part policy program for the coming year: a core agenda of bills to be promoted in states across the country, support for legislators and allies confronting the fiscal and economic crisis, and continued support for long-term issue work on health care, workers' rights, election reform, and economic growth issues like broadband deployment.

A Core Agenda Across the States:  In an era of tough economic times and budget cuts, there is an even greater need for progressives to project an overarching agenda that reflects our values, from rewarding work to valuing families to increasing democracy.  The right-wing has been extremely successful over the years in using such coordinated state legislative campaigns, from anti-gay marriage bills to anti-tax campaigns, to establish their national political message.  Progressives need to borrow a page from them and use coordinated state policy work to project our values and vision to voters during the 2010 legislative sessions.

In Detroit, legislators selected six policies that legislators working with Progressive States Network will work to introduce in twenty to thirty states across the country to help shape the progressive message for 2010.   All of the bills are designed to meet the following criteria:  (1) reflect strong progressive values, (2) have applicability in multiple states, (3) have minimal or no budgetary costs, and (4) have significant support among organizational allies who can support the campaigns nationally.  The policies selected were:

  • Paid Sick DaysRequire employers to provide paid sick days to employees for them to take care of their own illness, that of a family member, or deal with domestic violence.
  • Green BuildingsImplement policies aimed at making new and existing buildings more environmentally friendly.
  • Corporate Disclosure and Accountability in State BudgetsRequire full public information about how corporate interests benefiting from government contracts, economic subsidies and tax breaks are spending the money received.    
  • Foreclosure and Predatory Lending ReformProtect homeowners facing foreclosure, require proper maintenance of foreclosed homes, give homeowners the right to rent former homes, increase state enforcement powers, and give whistle-blower protections to employees at lending institutions.
  • Prescription Drugs Reforms: Reducing Costs and Improving QualityEnact an integrated prescription drug policy to curb costly industry marketing practices, promote generic medications and join multi-state collaboratives to pool state purchasing power.
  • Election Reforms to Help Drive Turnout in 2010 and 2012Enact legislation to increase voter turnout, including improved public assistance agency compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), allowing any voter to vote by mail, and making presidential elections competitive in every state by implementing a national popular vote for the President.  

Progressive Budget Policy in 2010:   With presentations from allies such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, PolicyLink, Good Jobs First, the Center for Community Change and union allies focused on budget reforms, the conference included multiple sessions dedicated to promoting both innovation in use of federal recovery funds and strategies for balancing budgets using a balanced approach including responsible revenue increases.   Progressive States Network highlighted its continuing work as one of the founding organizations in building States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery (STAR), a national coalition of organizations that is also promoting state-by-state coalitions to help support equity and innovation in implementing economic recovery plans around the country.

One key message that many speakers emphasized is that most states in fact did raise revenue this past year, a common reality for all recessions, and that basic economic research confirms that taxing high-income residents is better than budget cuts and better for economic growth.  Retreat participants agreed that PSN would offer more coordinated support to get that message out more broadly to strengthen the resolve of state leaders to resist the fanatic anti-tax message that the right-wing is promoting in the states.  We also plan on highlighting the key opportunities and challenges states face in using federal recovery funds for green jobs, broadband and supporting families in the context of addressing broader budget challenges.

Long-Term Policy Work in the States:  Along with promoting this core policy agenda and helping states deal with the fiscal crisis, the Retreat was a chance to discuss deepening work by PSN staff and legislators on longer-term projects promoting Health Care for All, Wage Standards and Workplace FreedomIntegrating Immigrants into Our Communities, Clean and Fair Elections, Reforming Government Contracting and Restricting Privatization, and Broadband Buildout and Technology Investments.

Building the Legislative Wing of the Progressive Movement

PSN is working with both advocacy groups and legislators to create a more integrated set of legislative networks to support progressive policy work. Through a combination of building issue-based task forces, hosting national conference calls, engaging in local outreach efforts, and facilitating legislator peer-to-peer education efforts, PSN is working to increase the dialogue between advocates and legislators working in different states and expand their shared strategic vision.

Along with multi-state legislative networks working on particular issues, Progressive States Network is working to better integrate the overall work of community, union and advocacy groups with the work of progressive state legislators in each state in promoting shared policy and a national vision.  To this end, participants heard from other progressive national networks and how their work can sustain PSN legislative networking.  Those speakers included Sen. Nan Orrock from the National Labor Caucus of State Legislators; Ryan Friedrichs from State Voices; Ponsella Hardaway from MOSES, an affiliate of Gamaliel Foundation; Doug Hall of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN); David Holtz of Progress Michigan an affiliate of ProgressNow; and Ron Stief of PolicyLink.

Participants discussed a plan for building a network of progressive state legislative groups, where legislators can work more effectively with each other and allied organizations to help move progressive initiatives across the states.  This fall and winter, PSN will help sponsor a number of in-state meetings with a few goals: to highlight the issue campaigns PSN is coordinating across multiple states, encourage progressive legislators and organizations to share their local agendas, and generally create a venue for greater collaboration between local progressive legislators and local progressive organizations.  To this end, we are also working with national organizational partners whose state affiliates have the interest and capacity to provide support for legislators interested in helping to host these meetings. 

In strengthening national legislative works, participants also discussed how to use new media resources to strengthen these legislative networks.  Informing the discussion were presentations from the National Institute on Money in State Politics on tools to track monied opposition and American Forum, which is building editorial boards state-by-state to help promote the progressive message. 

Moving Towards 2010

PSN's Legislative Leadership Retreat was an exciting chance for legislators and allied organizations to come together to plan together for the future.  While everyone acknowledged that the economic and fiscal crisis facing us is dire, we also discussed new ways of collaborating to address that challenge.  Together, PSN legislators and allies laid out a road map for our work going into 2010 and how we can build a stronger, more progressive movement in the states.