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06/12/2006 Profiles in Courage: Legislators Worth Watching




Monday, June 12, 2006

In today's Dispatch, we look at three of America's courageous and successful legislators, all three of whom face very different legislative landscapes: Asm. Adriano Espaillat of New York, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Texas, and Rep. Morgan Carroll of Colorado. These leaders present true profiles in courage. We hope you enjoy their stories.

Increasing-Democracy

Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat

New York Assemblyman (and Progressive States board member) Adriano Espaillat has been doing more than his fair share to stake out a clear progressive agenda on economic issues this year. From passing legislation to extend union protections to home day care workers to sponsoring a bill to hold management accountable for actions that force illegal strikes.

Holding Management Accountable: Along with Senator Nicholas Spano, Espaillat is pushing legislation to hold management accountable for actions undertaken to induce illegal strikes. During last year's transit strike in New York City, reporters and pundits were quick blame workers -- the workers who had the audacity to ask for their retirement benefits to be maintained during a period huge surpluses in the system's budget. The public took a very different view -- 71% blamed management. Only 14% blamed the workers. Espaillat's legislation would put in place financial penalties for irresponsible decisions by management during bargaining. While the New York Post is predictably howling about the idea, the move could prevent future strikes without undercutting worker pay -- that's a win-win.

Extending Labor Protections to 25,000 Workers: Domestic workers are one of the few types of workers not covered by federal labor laws -- giving state legislatures the ability to easily extend union protections to these workers. Assemblyman Espaillat sponsored and passed legislation extending union protections to 25,000 home care workers. The bill was vetoed by the Governor but Espaillat's legislation moved the ball down the field in terms of debating how to best protect the wages, working standards, and dignity of these hard-working Americans.

Reframing the Health Care Discussion: In January, Espaillat worked with Progressive States co-chair David Sirota to reframe the health care discussion. Too often, the discussion in this country is simply over whether government or individuals need to do more to handle health care costs. Espaillat and Sirota took a different approach, asking what would happen if American business's ingenuity was harnessed through regulation to help solve, rather than hinder, America's health care crisis. The idea? Regulations set a minimum benefit and businesses devote their enterpreneurialism to devising strategies to meet the benefit while lowering costs. Basically -- turn Wal-Mart's ingenuity into a force for good.

Increasing-Democracy

Rep. Garnet Coleman of Texas

When progressives have control of a legislative chamber, the measure of their leadership is how they improve the lives of the residents of their states. But when they are in opposition, the measure of leadership is how they stand up for principle and highlight the abuses of rightwing power.

Garnet Coleman, a Texas House member elected from Houston, is a shining example of that kind of oppositional leadership. Just this last week, as chairman of the Texas Democratic Platform Committee, Rep. Coleman sheparded through principles that rebuked the hardline anti-immigrant position of the state's rightwing GOP leadership, instead advocating a more balanced approach of strengthened border security with a "path to citizenship" to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows of the underground economy. The platform mocked the state's rightwing for their professed concern for supposed lost wages due to immigration:

We believe it is the height of hypocrisy for Republicans who consistently oppose increases in the minimum wage and worker protections to now claim they are 'protecting American jobs' with extreme immigration proposals

Leading Texas progressives in opposition to bad rightwing proposals in Texas is nothing new for Coleman. Last month, Rep. Coleman highlighted the irresponsibility of Texas leaders choosing tax cuts over the education of the state's students:

"Today, a Texas House majority sent Texas voters a message that giving a big tax break to Exxon is a higher priority than keeping a promise made to provide $1.8 billion for our children's schools," Coleman said.

Leading the "Killer D's": Most famously, Rep. Coleman was a leader of the Texas legislators who back in 2003 denounced the unprincipled mid-decade redistricting engineered by Congressional Majority Whip Tom Delay and who then became symbols of defiance by leaving the state to prevent quorum during the special session where the redistricting was first proposed. While Delay's redistricting plan was eventually shoved through, this high-profile rebellion that Coleman helped shine attention on Delay's corrupt machinations, a focus which eventually led to Delay's indictment on political money laundering and his resignation from Congress.

Policy Leadership for Texas: And this oppositional leadership was matched, in the period before the "Delayification" and polarization of Texas politics, by a long history of policy achievements by Coleman on behalf of Texas citizens. Reflecting that record since his first election back in 1991, Coleman was repeatedly named by Texas Monthly as one of the "Best Legislators of the Year."And back in 2001, Governing magazine chose him, among state leaders across the country as one of nine "Public Officials of the Year" because of "nearly a decade of legislating and endless work hours to the cause of children’s health, and the result has been a massive expansion of program eligibility for low-income families." Because of his work on behalf of voting rights, the Congressional Black Caucus named him Outstanding Black Caucus Chair for 2004. Recognized for that leadership by his colleagues, Coleman has served since 2003 as chair of the Legislative Study Group, a non-partisan house caucus dedicated to the development of public policy on behalf of all Texas families.

Increasing-Democracy

Rep. Morgan Carroll

Morgan Carroll quickly gained a reputation with both legislators and lobbyists when she won election to the Colorado House. Fighting for health care reform left her with a passion for lobbying ethics rules, resulting in her recent aggressive push for new legislation and for an audit of current lobbying records.

Rep. Carroll agreed to answer some questions from Progressive States last week about her legislative success and her pendint audit request.

Progressive States: You just passed legislation shining a light on lobbying activities. What were the biggest problems with lobbying disclosure in Colorado? How did your bill address these issues?

Rep. Morgan Carroll: Colorado's disclosure problems were largely that it the identity of lobbyists clients was not always transparent (due to ambiguity in prior definitions). Further because not every reported lobbying activity by bill #, it was impossible to cross-reference it as a data-searchable field to the public. Additionally prior law did not require a lobbyist to disclose the position their client(s) were having them advocate (for, against, or monitoring) legislation. Furthermore, there was no requirement that lobbyists disclose any direct financial relationships. Colorado also has no cooling off period for elected officials or appointed department heads before becoming lobbyists (revolving door issue).

Colorado has the 4th highest saturation of lobbyist to lawmaker and our reliance and dependence on lobbyists has increased with the passage of our terms limits. More institutional issue specialty has passed from the expertise of elected officials and into the hands of lobbyists.

Passage of my bill means that the identity of everyone lobbyist work for will be public knowledge; that the lobbying history by every lobbyist and their client on every bill number will be available to the public and the press; that the advocacy position of their clients (to the extent they have one) will be known to the public and any direct financial relationships have an independent reporting requirement in order to detect and enforce ethics rules on conflict of interest. (The cooling off period was pulled off my bill by hostile amendment.)

Bottom line is any member of the public will be able to go online, click on a bill number, and pull up the entire lobbying history, and financial interests in the legislation.

Progressive States: How much of an uphill battle was it? What were the biggest roadblocks?

Rep. Carroll: This was a huge uphill battle. I introduced this legislation before the Abramoff and other lobbying scandals broke and no one saw the need for it because "we already know who is lobbying what down here." The largest failure was for many electeds to realize that this was not about them or even about lobbyists but about the public's right to know and hold everyone accountable.

The main resistance was from lawmakers themselves who either felt this was (1) insulting them; (2) insulting lobbyists; or (3) admitting we are crooks too easily influenced by lobbyists. Lawmakers were also afraid that if they took on lobbyists that lobbyists might retaliate in the form of either (a) killing their bills; or (b) withholding campaign contributions.

The resistance from lobbyists was largely private and behind the scenes. No lobbyist actively, publicly lobbied against the bill, but many expressed "their concerns" with the bill in private conversations "unofficially" to other lawmakers. They fed quotes to the press indicating the reforms were unnecessary. They opposed the measure more through a "whisper campaign" than through direct measures.

Progressive States: You've earned yourself quite the reputation in Colorado for standing up to lobbyists, not just with this bill, but in general. Where does your passion for the issue come from?

Rep. Carroll: They come from my passion for good process in good government and my experience as a freshman legislator:

(1) having every effort for healthcare and insurance reform thwarted by insurance lobbyists;

(2) fighting 250 lobbyists opposing my legislation to allow an injured worker to choose their own physician in workers comp (instead of the insurance industry);

(3) finding the practice of summoning elected officials from the floor during votes, amendments and debates, arrogant, distracting and disturbing (I am 1 out 100 who has a policy of refusing to leave the floor during votes to talk to lobbyists). I have watched people miss votes, vote the wrong way or be completely unaware of how floor amendments changed legislation.

My passion comes from watching consumers and the public get screwed because industry lobbyists have more time, money, clout and power than elected officials under the dome.

In Colorado (maybe elsewhere too), lobbyists often write bills, advocate bills, testify on bills, provide "research" on legislation, help with constituent work, fund campaigns, fund "office accounts, provide lawmakers with entertainment, decide endorsements, awards and can decide the fate of public policy. That is too much power to have anything other than total transparency.

Progressive States: You've also called for an audit of lobbyists. What's the story there?

Rep. Carroll: Colorado received a near-failing grade from the Center for Public Integrity for our lobbying laws. We lost points because of the lacking disclosure laws, lacking a cooling off period and for lax enforcement.

I asked for an audit on compliance with current lobbying laws because the has never been an audit in the history of Colorado for lobbyist compliance. That's too long. Furthermore, we had not enforced penalties for non-compliance in over 5 years. I also know that legislative reforms are only as good as their enforcement and ours is graded as failing. I didn't just want to pass a bill. I wanted to see meaningful reforms.

Progressive States: What legislation can we look forward to next year?

Rep. Carroll: Cooling Off Period: I will be running a cooling off period for high level department heads and elected officials before becoming lobbyists.

Reforming State Contracting Practices: I will also require lobbyist-style disclosures for companies wining-and-dining in pursuit of state contracts to see if there is any connection between who spends money courting decision-makers and if there is a correlation to those who land state contracts. We also need a database tracking past performance of prior vendors and best value contracting.

Insurance (Healthcare) Reforms: Addressing patient choice in medical care, rate-setting practices for insurance companies in Colorado, prompt payment of medical bills, making the insurance commissioner an elected position, shoring up anti-trust laws in medical mergers, transparency in healthcare contracts.

Whistleblower Protection for Healthcare Workers reporting patient safety problems.

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Eye on the Right

Tom DeLay's machinations to redistrict Texas's Congressional seats using corporate money has made big news nationally. But there's a quieter tale of corruption that emerged in Texas around the same time as well. While progressive leaders like Garnet Coleman spend their time in the Texas legislature advancing health care bills, the Texas GOP was raising millions in corporate money from a wide range of benefactors: AT&T, Reliant Energy, a for-profit nursing home company, and right-wing ideological donors. While questions were raised as to whether this was legal, there is no question these donors got something for their gfits. AT&T won in a telco deregulation battle. Reliant got a favorable energy deregulation bill. Nursing homes won a tort deform measure. And a number of hard-right measures advanced.

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Matt Singer
Editor, Stateside Dispatch