To be a progressive is to seek new laws that advance economic and social justice for all. That endeavor was thoroughly frustrated by the last Congress, and the next one will be worse. On the federal level, progressives had to settle for President Obama’s executive orders, which are praiseworthy but subject to reversal by a future president.
Yet there were true legislative victories last year—in states and localities across America. Progressive state legislators, city council members and county commissioners enacted a wide range of protections and reforms. These lawmakers are now squarely at the vanguard of the progressive movement and we ought to recognize some of their accomplishments:
1. Minimum Wage—While Congress ignored this crucial issue, ten state legislatures (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia) and many cities (including Chicago, Washington, San Diego, Santa Fe, and Seattle) raised their minimum wages in 2014. In addition, the minimum wage was raised in four states (Alabama, Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota) through November ballot initiatives. Today more than 60 percent of Americans are protected by a state or local minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum.
2. Paid Sick Days—The effort to provide employees with paid sick days achieved a breakout year in 2014 with legislative victories in two states (California, Connecticut), a ballot initiative victory in Massachusetts, and laws in at least 16 localities (including New York City, Washington, Seattle, Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Newark and Trenton).
3. More Employee Protections—“Ban the Box” legislation, which prohibits a question about criminal history on job applications, was enacted in four states (Delaware, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey) and several cities (including Baltimore; Columbia, Mo.; Louisville; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans; Indianapolis; and Syracuse, N.Y.). Today 13 states and more than 70 cities and counties Ban the Box. In addition, six states (Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin) enacted social media privacy laws that prevent employers from asking workers or job applicants for their social media passwords or asking them to “friend” the employer. San Francisco enacted a first-in-the-nation Retail Workers Bill of Rights.
4. Protecting Immigrants—While the U.S. House ignored a Senate-passed effort to reform immigration law, states and cities have decisively sided with immigrants. Both Florida and Washington enacted DREAM Acts, so now a total of 18 states provide in-state college tuition to unauthorized immigrants. Spokane, Wash. was the latest city to enact a “Don’t Ask Immigration Status Act” and New York City passed legislation to create a city ID card available to all residents whether authorized or not.
5. Electronic Surveillance—Ten states (Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin) enacted laws requiring police to get a warrant before accessing data tracking an individual’s movements through their cell phones. Three other states (Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin) passed legislation requiring a warrant before police use drones for individual surveillance. (However, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed similar drone legislation in California.)
6. Universal Pre-K—A number of states and cities significantly expanded pre-kindergarten programs, including the states of Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the cities of Chicago, Nashville and New York City.
7. Voter Registration—Illinois enacted a pilot same-day registration program and a bill that will make the process permanent has passed both the state house and senate. Utah also enacted legislation to test same-day registration, while in November Montana voters rejected a right-wing ballot initiative that attempted to repeal same-day registration. Ten states (not including Utah) and the District of Columbia now offer registration on Election Day. In addition, three states (Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska) enacted laws to permit online registration, making such registration now legal in 24 states.
8. Pregnant Workers Fairness—Five states (Delaware, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Massachusetts) and three cities (Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., Washington) enacted a “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act” that ensures pregnant employees receive reasonable accommodations to help them stay on the job. So far, a total of 12 states and five cities have enacted this important legislation.
9. Cell Phone Kill Switch—Both California and Minnesota enacted laws mandating that smart phones come with a “kill switch” that renders them useless if lost or stolen.
10. Gun Violence Prevention—The big news was Washington state’s approval by ballot initiative of background checks for all gun purchases. Less well-known are eight other state legislative victories in the past year, especially a groundbreaking Gun Violence Restraining Order law in California and a comprehensive strengthening of gun law in Massachusetts.
The fact is, right-wing organizations have long understood the importance of state and local policy and they have responded by providing strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers, most publicly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In 2014, ALEC created a new organization, the American City County Exchange (ACCE), to spread their “free market” model laws across the nation at the local level. Progressives need to aggressively fight back.
The Public Leadership Institute just published its 2015 Progressive Agenda for States and Localities. Our progressive agenda includes hyperlinks so that left-of-center legislators, council members and commissioners have direct access to more than 150 progressive model bills, almost half of which are authored by our staff at the Public Leadership Institute. Working with allies across the nation, we will promote our proactive agenda to a nationwide network of more than 13,000 progressive state and local lawmakers.
If you want to get involved at the state or local level, please feel free to join the effort here.
Bernie Horn is Senior Advisor for the Public Leadership Institute and for Progressive Majority Action.