This fall, voters in some states and cities will have the chance to do more than just push back. Initiatives are on the ballot that would directly confront the destruction that austerity economics has wrought on communities, while building national momentum behind policies to revitalize our economy and protect our democracy. All kinds of issues are at stake, from workers’ rights to corporate influence in politics, to whether corporations and the luckiest few will pay their fair share in taxes. While voters will be electing a president, governors, Congress, and thousands of state legislators this November 6, here are a few places where a progressive vision will also be on the ballot:
This year, conservatives waged a comprehensive, fifty-state campaign against workplace policies that form the very foundation of economic opportunity and the middle class. As the smoke clears on 2011, progressives must make a sober assessment of this assault and its implications for 2012. The policies at stake this year have run the gamut of cornerstone protections for every sector of the workforce:
* Collective bargaining rights for both public servants and workers in the private sector.
* Minimum wage, overtime, and child labor laws.
* Wage and contracting standards for construction workers.
* Academic freedom protections for educators.
* Retirement funds for state and local employees, many of whom are not covered by Social Security.
* Legislation to hamstring unions’ financially, like so-called “right-to-work” bills.
In addition, legislation mandating photo identification for voters is seen largely as an effort to suppress voter turnout among immigrants and people of color, key constituencies which unions are effective at mobilizing on Election Day.
In all, over 40 states saw legislation on several of these topics introduced, and 26 states passed multiple such bills. Wisconsin led the way in major bills passed with six, but several states were equally aggressive: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Ohio all rolled back workers’ rights in four or five of the above areas. Vermont stands alone as the only state in which not one major piece of legislation repealing workers’ rights was introduced, though progressives in nine other states have been successful in defeating this agenda.
Unprecedented recall elections of state legislators in Wisconsin this summer — and the momentum behind a citizens’ veto campaign of the anti-worker SB 5 in Ohio — corroborate polling throughout the country showing the attacks on workers and the middle class to be a costly political overreach that is deeply unpopular with voters. And while conservatives were able to drive through an alarming amount of destructive legislation this session, there were also some bright spots for progressives — opportunities to build on in 2012 as state lawmakers across the nation work to turn the tide.
An Unprecedented Assault on Public Employees
Conservatives saw the greatest success on elements of their agenda that they were able to convince the public were directly tied to state budget shortfalls. Collective bargaining rights for teachers, nurses, and other public servants — but especially their retirement funds — saw the most significant rollbacks. West Virginia was the only state where legislators even introduced bills to expand collective bargaining rights (HB 2155 / SB 5 and HB 2675) and raise wage standards for public servants (HB 3110).
Other Attacks on Workers Defeated
Despite the enactment of many laws this session attacking public sector workers’ bargaining rights and retirement security, several other attempts to roll back workers’ rights were defeated. Only three states passed bans on prevailing wage standards for construction workers, out of 13 introduced. Only one state (New Hampshire) passed a bill rolling back the minimum wage, and one state (Maine) a bill undermining child labor protections; both bills had to be substantially watered down to achieve passage. Perhaps most tellingly, the bevy of so-called “right-to-work” bills that was anticipated this year went down in flames.
Historic Advances for Workers
Progressives also made notable advances for workers’ rights this year, rising over the din of calls for austerity, cuts, and rollbacks. This included one historic bill passed in Connecticut (SB 913): the nation’s first statewide law entitling workers to paid sick days. Despite a full-frontal campaign by business lobbyists against the legislation, advocates and legislators won passage of the bill in June, with the strong help of newly-elected Gov. Dannel Malloy who campaigned specifically on the issue in winning hard-fought primary and general elections last year.
Turning the Tide in 2012
As 2011 state legislative sessions closed, momentum in a number of states appeared to be significantly turning away from destructive corporate-backed attacks on workers and towards a different approach in 2012. The unprecedented recall elections of state senators in Wisconsin resulted in the removal of two anti-worker senators from office, prompting Gov. Walker’s rhetoric to change from strident attacks to talk of compromise and bipartisanship. In Ohio, Gov. Kasich, a strong backer of the anti-worker Senate Bill 5, is now in full retreat as polls continue to show strong support for its repeal. And in Michigan, public support appears to be growing for the recall of a state lawmaker who reportedly "led the charge on measures limiting teacher's collective bargaining rights."
With more attacks on workers and a presidential election both looming in 2012, and with the tide of public opinion clearly turned against these destructive attacks benefiting corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, this growing network of state legislative leaders will be on the front lines of these critical upcoming fights.
Lawmakers confronted massive budget shortfalls, persistently high unemployment, and myriad fiscal and economic obstacles during 2011 state legislative sessions. With states still reeling from effects of the economic downturn and with federal investment in state economies receding, lawmakers considered drastic measures to confront budgetary constraints. Though many state revenue outlooks improved slightly in the past few months, partly as a result of tax increases passed in recent years, it was little comfort as states faced collective shortfalls of $103 billion in fiscal year 2012. As sessions progressed, it became painfully apparent that conservative lawmakers were not interested in job creation, economic growth, or support for those who have been hit hardest by the recession, but rather ideologically-driven platforms that sacrificed fiscal sustainability and the economic security of millions of families for the benefit of the affluent and huge corporations.
In this week’s Research Roundup: Reports from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on how states may spend $90 billion less on health care due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on how states and local governments can fight austerity measures and reclaim their futures, the Guttmacher Institute on the record number of state abortion restrictions enacted in 2011, the National Employment Law Project on hiring discrimination a
As 2011 legislative sessions draw to a close, many states continue to wrestle with budget shortfalls. Some adopted responsible measures this session to rebuild prosperity through a balanced approach that included revenue generation, while others went down a destructive path relying exclusively on job-killing cuts. The same revenue debate that played out in the states is now coming to a boil in Washington D.C. as policymakers consider ways to raise revenue to address the federal deficit — including one misguided proposal that would result in more corporate welfare and provide little benefit for the nation’s economic security.
Beginning almost immediately with the gaveling-in of sessions in January, newly empowered conservatives unleashed a torrent of attacks aimed directly at workers, women, children, immigrants, historically disenfranchised populations, and the very existence of the middle class. Coordinated multi-state efforts like the assault on collective bargaining, extremist restrictions on reproductive rights, broad Arizona-style attacks on immigrants, and attempts to institute new barriers to voting through Voter ID requirements all repeatedly made national news.
From a non-stop assault on the rights of workers, immigrants, and women, to power grabs making it easier for corporations to influence the political process and harder for historically disenfranchised populations to vote, to balancing state budgets on the backs of children and the vulnerable by cutting schools and health care in order to give millionaires and CEOs even bigger tax cuts, the measures that grabbed headlines in the states this year have been almost uniformly bad news for the economic security of the vast majority of Americans. But dig just a little beneath the headlines, and some glimmers of hope are clearly visible.
Today, as the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) releases their annual rankings of outlooks for all 50 state economies, questions are being raised about the criteria used by the shadowy group. A new examination of the criteria used in past "Rich States, Poor States" reports published by ALEC in partnership with the infamous supply-side economist Arthur Laffer reveals rankings that are based on adherence to the policy wishes of huge corporations and that disregard the middle class entirely.
Department of Labor statistics released last week revealed the bad news: unemployment is back to 9.1%, after only 54,000 jobs were added in May. These numbers come as Fortune 500 companies are reporting record profits, still benefiting from the large tax cuts that reckless conservative economic policies have provided them over the past 10 years. Recent studies show why, in order to address a stubborn domestic jobs crisis head-on and to reinvigorate America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, advancing state policies that encourage green job creation is more critical than ever.
This week marks the tenth anniversary of the enactment of the first Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Commenting at the time on the surplus his administration inherited and in favor of flawed trickle-down economics, former President George W. Bush remarked upon its passage: "We recognize, loud and clear, the surplus is not the government's money. The surplus is the people's money. And we ought to trust them with their own money." In reality, the Bush tax cuts, along with the economic downturn and the wars in recent years, have proven to be by far the largest contributor to the country's deficit. And just as the most affluent are not contributing their fair share, large corporations are engaging in several tax avoidance schemes by utilizing offshore tax havens and other mechanisms.