The Best of the States: 13 Good, Progressive Bills Making Headway This Year

News & Politics

Editor's note: Last week, all eyes were on the New York state legislature's historic passage of a marriage equality bill -- the first in a GOP-controlled legislature. But as this report by the Progressive States Network reveals, it's not the only positive news coming out of the states.

Working families across the nation may find themselves feeling thankful that state legislative sessions have either reached or are nearing their finish lines for 2011.

After an historic shift in the partisan control of state legislative chambers following last November’s elections, conservatives found themselves controlling new levers of power in many states.

They used them.

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.

In every region of the nation, in red states and blue states alike, momentum increased behind a variety of common-sense, positive, pragmatic measures in the states that contrast sharply with the extreme and unpopular priorities of the right. Even as moderate and progressive lawmakers found themselves forced to play defense against an unprecedented assault on the middle class in many states, they still were able to advance measures to rebuild their state economies, protect the middle class, and build healthier and stronger communities.

And in states where the corporate right did not control the agenda, some landmark legislation passed that may point the way forward for future years in other states—when they will surely find themselves out of power once again.

In no particular order, below are 13 positive, progressive pieces of legislation from around the states that advanced in 2011 and which represent some of the key policy solutions featured in PSN’s Blueprint For Economic Security. Some are more prominent, others less so, but all advanced policies that promise to continue gaining momentum across the nation in the years to come.

1. Oregon’s HB 2825: Increasing Accountability for Corporate Subsidies

Last month, Oregon’s legislature unanimously approved a bill to provide increased transparency of state spending on economic development subsidies. The legislation (HB 2825) would require the Department of Administrative Services to publish detailed information regarding the amount, purpose, and intent of tax incentives directed to corporate entities on the state's transparency website. State Rep. Phil Barnhart (D), who sponsored the bill along with State Rep. Kim Thatcher (R), commented that “spending on tax breaks should be treated the same as spending on programs,” and that “by putting this information online, as is currently the case with other areas of the budget, we move one step closer to that goal." Governor John Kitzhaber recently signed the bill into law.

The victory in Oregon mirrors legislative movement across the country to increase transparency in the budget process as states continue to experience the lasting impacts of the economic downturn. This past session, lawmakers in several states, including ColoradoHawaiiMaineMassachusettsNew MexicoNew JerseyNew YorkRhode Island,VermontVirginiaWashington, and West Virginia, championed initiatives to augment accountability of state spending on corporate tax breaks, subsidies, and contracts—all measures that would aid in rebuilding prosperity in state economies in the years to come.  

2. Illinois’ SB 2505: A Responsible Approach to Revenue Shortfalls

In January, Illinois lawmakers approved legislation to raise the state corporate and personal income tax. In explaining the need for the effort, Gov. Pat Quinn explained that the state's "fiscal house was burning." Faced with a revenue shortfall of$15 billion, legislators garnered the political will to enact sensible means to generate sorely-needed revenue. The plan is expected to raise approximately $6.5 billion over the next year and primarily consists of temporarily increasing the state's flat personal income tax, from 3 to 5 percent, and corporate tax, from 4.8 to 7 percent.

Several other states followed Illinois' lead this year and looked to enact revenue measures to alleviate fiscal pressures, including HawaiiMarylandNevada, and VermontConnecticut stands out among states for looking towards more progressive means to closing shortfalls and supporting working families, through increasing the income and corporate tax, raising the tax on certain luxury items, broadening the sales tax base to include some services, and enacting a state-based earned income tax credit (EITC). As countless studies have shown, during an economic downturn, progressive revenue generation is far preferable to deep cuts, as it allows states to provide funding for public structures, save the jobs of teachers, nurses, and firefighters, pump money into the economy, and protect middle class families, children, and the elderly.  

3. Oregon’s SB 889: Partnership Banks to Rebuild Prosperity in the States

Lawmakers in several states are considering proactive economic development policies to confront bleak fiscal and economic outlooks. One of the most innovative is the creation of partnership banks similar to North Dakota’s—the only state in the country to have its own bank. At a basic level, a partnership bank is capitalized by state money, publicly governed, can serve as a depository for state revenue, and returns a portion of its profits to the state. Rather than sending taxpayer funds to increase the profits of big banks, a partnership bank keeps deposits in-state. As such, it reduces state dependence on large financial corporations and allows states to invest dollars in local communities. Generally, the objectives of partnership banks are to: 

  • Team up with local banks to keep public dollars in the community
  • Create jobs and encourage economic growth
  • Increase state revenues and keep money in-state
  • Strengthen local and community banks by improving access to capital
  • Decrease debt costs for local government
  • Provide more resources for small businesses

In several states—HawaiiMaineMarylandNew YorkOregon (SB 889)and Washington—legislation was introduced to either create or assess the feasibility and economic impact of the establishment of a partnership bank. (For more information on partnership banks, see this report by Demos and this online clearinghouse maintained by Center for State Innovation.)  

4. Maryland’s HB 93: Countering Citizens United by Taking it to the Shareholders

Maryland’s HB 93, passed this year, requires reporting of independent expenditures and electioneering communications aimed at influencing Maryland elections when the total expenditure surpasses $10,000. Perhaps most importantly, the legislation requires that any corporation, union, or other membership organization that files an independent expenditure include the relevant information about the expenditures in any periodic reports to its shareholders, members, or donors. Maryland is the first state in the country to require transparency of this sort, and it is an important step toward ensuring that corporations are accountable to those whose investments stand to be impacted due to any consequences of political spending.

The information that must be provided includes:

  • The identity of the entity making the expenditure
  • The business address of the entity making the expenditure
  • The amount and date of the expenditure
  • The name of the candidate or ballot measure
  • If they are supporting or opposing the candidate or ballot measure

Finally, the entity must either provide this information in their annual report to members or stockholders or post a link to the independent expenditure report on its website within 24 hours of filing the report, which must be maintained at least until the end of the election cycle. Efforts to make corporate political spending more accountable to shareholders took a variety of forms this year. Legislation to improve disclosure and/or require shareholder approval prior to independent political spending was introduced in at least 16 states in 2011, including New Mexico, where a bill to increase disclosure passed the Senate. Additionally, by the end of 2011, at least 45 publicly-traded companies will have faced shareholder resolutions intended to improve corporate accountability from within.  

5. Connecticut’s SB 913: As Other States Attack Workers, Groundbreaking Victory on Paid Sick Days

Connecticut made history this year by enacting the first state-wide law guaranteeing workers the right to earn paid sick days (SB 913). Rep. Zeke Zalaski, Chair of the House Labor and Public Employees Committee emphasized the national importance of the bill, saying “this is a great opportunity for us to send a message to the rest of the country that we in Connecticut value our workers. This is a landmark bill that is as important as other precedent setting gains like child labor and civil rights laws.”

Passage of the bill paved the way for other states and cities to follow suit this year:

  • Last week, the Philadelphia City Council passed a local paid sick days bill.
  • The Massachusetts General Court Joint Labor Committee is expected to hold a hearing on a state-wide bill this summer (S 930H 1398).
  • A proposed Seattle ordinance, just introduced in June, already enjoys the support of the mayor and a near-majority of councilmembers.
  • In Denver, a citizen initiative for a local ordinance is expected to be on the November ballot.
  • And momentum is building for New York City’s paid sick days bill, which still enjoys support of a strong majority on the City Council.

The victory in Connecticut has enabled worker advocates in these and other places across the country to wrest momentum back from conservatives in Wisconsin, who enacted a law preempting municipal paid sick days ordinances and quashed the will of Milwaukee voters who overwhelmingly enacted such a law in 2008.  

6. Texas’ SB 1024: In a Deep Red State, Success on Fighting Wage Theft

This session, legislators in Texas closed a major loophole to protect workers from having their wages stolen by their employers by passing SB 1024. Under Texas law, cases of wage theft are handled by local law enforcement under the Theft of Services law. Prosecution depends on establishing intent to steal, and partial payment is assumed to negate that. For years, unscrupulous employers have dodged the law by paying workers a fraction of what they are owed, preempting police involvement.

Under SB 1024, the law now specifies that partial payment of wages is not sufficient to negate an intent to steal wages. Governor Rick Perry’s signature on the bill capped a major victory for worker advocates across Texas, including Workers Defense in Austin and El Paso’s Labor Justice Committee, who have faced enormous obstacles in advancing workers’ rights policies in the state.  

7. Maine’s LD 269: Bipartisan Support for Work-Sharing Ensures More Job Security for Thousands

In a legislative session otherwise dominated by extreme efforts to roll back workers’ rights, Maine Rep. Diane Russell successfully led a bipartisan effort to pass a measure that will ensure the job security of thousands of Maine workers. LD 269 creates a Work-Sharing program under the state’s existing Unemployment Insurance program that enables employers to avoid layoffs by temporarily reducing their staff’s hours uniformly and entitling workers to a proportional share of unemployment insurance. Conservatives and Tea Party members joined progressives in ushering the bill through with unanimous support, smartly recognizing it as an example of the fact that what is good for workers is also good for business, the economy, and the state as a whole.  

8. Oregon’s HB 2200 and HB2192: Expanding Broadband Access to Rural Areas

High-speed Internet supports the public structures that we rely on for American prosperity—economic development, education, health care, transportation, and public safety. This year, state policymakers across the nation advanced progressive broadband policies to ensure that everyone benefits from high-speed Internet—a needed public service for all.

One way lawmakers are approaching this goal is by maximizing the funds included in the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USF is a program created at the state and federal levels that aims to achieve universal access to telecommunications services by providing affordable access to rural residents and low-income families. During this legislative session, Oregon legislators introduced a series of bills that maximize the use of that fund. One (HB 2200) included the subsidy broadband services within the state’s USF program, and another (HB 2192, which was enacted), repurposes part of the fund for mapping the availability of broadband in the state. Mapping is an important tool for legislators and local planning groups who seek to evaluate the current status of their states’ Internet infrastructure.Colorado’s SB 2 Low Income Telephone Users Fund also saved subsidy programs for low-income residents in the state. The bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.  

9. Vermont’s SB 78: Empowering Community Broadband to Grow State Economies

Local entities have often taken power in their own hands to serve their communities’ need for broadband services, especially in areas where corporate providers have no economic incentives to deploy broadband networks. In 2011, some states stepped up to the plate to guarantee that every area benefits from high-speed Internet. Vermont’s SB 78 grants municipalities the ability to regulate the construction, alteration, development and other specific powers related to broadband networks. The bill also recognizes that federal funding will be important to provide broadband for its state, and delineates a careful three year timeline to effectively and efficiently create broadband projects. Among its most innovative provisions is the issuance of the certificate of public good for communications, which expedites the permitting process for communities that want to build their own broadband networks. Not enacted, but a great step forward, was the introduction of HB 1711 in Washington state, which authorizes public utility districts and rural port districts to provide retail telecommunications services for the purpose of serving the communications needs of underserved and unserved communities.

Just as each state has its own needs—unique geographies, demographics, and economies—its policymakers must assess on their own how to best invest in broadband to achieve full access. More than 22 states have established broadband councils or task forces, and out of these, 19 were created by the state legislative branch. This year, West Virginia, the largest state-wide recipient of broadband stimulus funding, has enacted the continuation of its Broadband Deployment Council. In paying attention to the needs of rural communities, SB 507 designates two members, coming from two separate rural districts.  

10. Connecticut’s HB 6399: Setting a Path towards a Green Economy

Conservatives across the nation took power in many legislative chambers in 2010 promising voters one thing: jobs, jobs, jobs. Instead, as they focused on other priorities this session, it was left to moderate and progressive state legislators to advance efforts that promise to put Americans back to work by creating jobs that pay good wages and set states on paths to energy independence and competitiveness in the green economy. Connecticut, for instance, is getting ready to enact its green jobs task force bill (HB 6399), which creates a multi-sector task force with an emphasis on collaboration between the manufacturing sector and colleges and universities. The bill’s intention is to encourage the creation of innovative new jobs and specifically to ensure that students educated in the state have access to good, green jobs, and stay in-state to contribute to Connecticut’s economy.

Also on its way to enactment is the Workforce Training for Green Careers in Oregon (SB 175), which creates an employer workforce training program and a youth employment program in the state’s Department of Community College and Workforce Development. By integrating state resources and higher education infrastructure with innovative new jobs programs, states can tackle unemployment and underemployment while investing in the long-term skills and talents of state residents—all while growing their economies and increasing competitiveness.  

11. Colorado’s SB 11-126: Tuition Equity Laws Gain Support from Business and National Momentum

As immigration reform has stalled at the federal level, states are playing an increasingly prominent role in the national policy debate in 2011. One proposal that has seen significant action this year has been tuition equity—legislation that allows qualifying undocumented students to attend public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates. In Colorado, the ASSET bill (SB 11-126), which stands for “Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow,” was cleared by the Senate but failed to pass in the House, where it died after a vote along partisan lines. The bill received strong supportfrom business groups and immigrant and education advocates alike and is poised for a strong push next session. A number of other states moved tuition equity legislation this year, including in Connecticut and Maryland where similar bills were passed and signed into law. Oregon also saw a tuition equity bill gain traction this session with bipartisan support: the prime sponsors of their Senate tuition equity proposal were Republicans. The issue continues to gain momentum: just this week a bill was introduced in Pennsylvania. In all, 13 states have passed laws granting greater educational access and opportunity to talented and aspiring undocumented students.  

12. California’s AB 1081: An Alternative to a Flawed Federal Immigration Enforcement Program

The federal “Secure Communities” program has come under immense pressure in recent months, with state and local elected leaders from around the country voicing opposition to a controversial initiative responsible for annually deporting over 400,000 non-criminal undocumented immigrants, costing states millions in enforcement expenditures, and negatively impacting community policing efforts in the process. In California, the TRUST Act (Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools) aims to chart a more sensible course on immigration enforcement while strengthening local community policing efforts that have proven to be successful. The bill passed the Assembly earlier this year, and last week was approved by the Senate Public Safety committee, clearing its first hurdle in the upper chamber. Most notably, the bill would allow local governments to decide whether to opt in to participate in Secure Communities, or tailor their participation to meet local needs. It would also set safeguards against racial profiling, protect children and domestic violence victims from deportation and ensure access to due process and representation for individuals who are accused but never convicted of a crime. Rhode Island also introduced an innovative bill aimed at discouraging racial profiling based on immigration status. There is a growing understanding of the high cost of flawed immigration enforcement initiatives for states—in fact, the Governors of Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts have withdrawn their states’ participation in the program, over the past two months and Colorado Governor Hickenlooper is considering doing the same.   

13. Connecticut’s SB921: Increased Choice, Coverage, and Health Security for Families

As many provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) kicked in on its one-year anniversary, states continued making strides towards implementation of the state-based marketplaces for consumers—or exchanges—that are at the heart of the federal law, and which are scheduled to go into effect in 2014. Some of the most significant progress was made in the state of Connecticut where SB921, passed into law this session, sets up a quasi-public agency governed by a 14-member board, charging them with reducing the number of uninsured residents in the state. Of specific note, the bill prohibits insurers and carriers from serving on the exchange board and includes conflict of interest language, allows the board to negotiate for consumer-friendly protections, and mandates that it comply with the state transparency and open government laws. In addition to Connecticut, states such as CaliforniaMaryland, and Washington passed consumer-friendly exchange legislation as well. Meanwhile, Vermont passed landmark legislation that creates a framework for the state to pursue a single-payer solution, and momentum towards implementation of the ACA continued even in states where conservative Attorneys General are currently challenging the law in court.

This article was written in collaboration with the Progressive States Network's policy staff. The original, and much more news from the states, can be found at PSN's website.

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