A pension debate in Rhode Island this fall could set the stage for how dozens of other states take up the issue when regular sessions resume in 2012. As Progressive States Network reported last month, calls for dramatic changes to public pension systems and social security are largely an opportunistic move by conservatives to advance a privatization and anti-tax agenda. The debate playing out in Rhode Island has turned into another unfortunate instance of this, driven by a take-it-or-leave-it proposal by State Treasurer Gina Raimando – a venture capitalist by trade – that would slash benefits and partially privatize the system. To support the proposal, a newly formed lobbying organization supported by financiers and business lobbyists is running a full-press political campaign that is choking out discussion of more reasonable alternatives.
As protests on Wall Street spread across the country, the dire need for progressive solutions to financial corruption and savage inequality is capturing national attention. One aspect of Wall Street’s agenda that has not been sharply criticized enough is emerging as a defining issue in the presidential campaigns of challengers to President Obama: dismantling Social Security and public pension systems. Texas Governor Rick Perry has grabbed the most headlines by absurdly characterizing Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” and calling it a “crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal.” Other presidential candidates are also trying to stake out positions to privatize retirement funds, and state policymakers who are leading ideological attacks on workers have targeted pension funds in an effort to pit union and non-union workers against each other.
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis last week announced a new state-federal program to crack down on a form of payroll fraud that has run rampant over the last decade. Absent stronger enforcement of labor standards, employers are going to great lengths to cash in by defrauding their workers and leaving taxpayers with the bill. Just this week, a NYC construction firm has been accused of using front companies to dodge union contracts. The unions allege the company used low-wage workers to pocket $7 million in wages and benefits from 2007-2011. A much more common and mundane way for employers to pad their bottom lines is by misclassifying employees as independent contractors. Through misclassification, companies can simultaneously defraud workers of minimum wage and overtime and dodge a variety of state and federal taxes: payroll, income, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation. Prosecuting the practice, and deterring employers from engaging in it, is both a vital way to protect working families’ economic security and an important measure to alleviate state and federal revenue crises.
Conservative efforts to roll back reforms that benefit working families have hit a major snag – the voting public. Citizens in Ohio and Maine are taking advantage of the ballot initiative process in their states to fight back against right-wing legislation rammed through their statehouses this year that aims more to tilt the 2012 elections rather than actually serve any constituents. As record numbers of voters in some states sign on to petitions to repeal harmful and politically motivated laws, they are sending a clear message, one both reflected in polling and which is resonating across the country: that they will not allow their states to move backwards by stripping workers and voters of fundamental rights.
This week, Seattle’s City Council voted 8-1 to make their city the fourth major city in the nation — following Washington, D.C., Milwaukee and San Francisco — to enact legislation ensuring that workers will not have to choose between keeping their jobs and getting the health care they or a family member need. Earlier this year, conservative state legislators struck down Milwaukee’s law, enacted by a 70-30 percent majority in a 2008 ballot initiative, by passing a bill stripping local governments of the power to regulate family and medical leave. This victory for Seattle families continues the positive national momentum of paid sick days legislation, which was also enacted statewide in Connecticut earlier this year, and which promises to continue to be a priority for lawmakers seeking economic security for their constituents across the nation in cities and states next year. It also comes at a time when some tragic, real-life stories of families affected by a lack of paid sick days are emerging, reinforcing the need for this critical measure.
“It's a no-brainer: Congress should pass the bill. Now.” That’s how California Gov. Jerry Brown characterized the decision facing Congress on whether to pass President Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act, the legislative language of which was released in full this week. Gov. Brown’s reaction was not unique amongst state officials around the nation, dozens of whom have come out in strong support of the bill. As reports around the nation this week indicated, state economies stand to benefit significantly from the boost that would be provided by direct funding in the bill allowing them to put construction workers back to work rebuilding crumbling schools and infrastructure, and to make sure teachers, firefighters, and cops in their communities stay on the job.
As leaders in state legislatures across the country, we urgently call on President Obama and the Congress to enact a new, broad-based job creation plan, including significant additional fiscal relief to states and local governments to foster economic growth and create and maintain jobs across the nation.
We need a strong job creation plan to foster growth, ensure that states perform the core functions that all American families deserve, and deliver jobs to Americans on Main Street. The gravity of the crisis demands swift and bold action.
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