Worst state and local defeats so far this year

Our last blog listed some really great progressive victories in the states and localities so far this year. Now it’s time to face some grim music.

The fact is, state legislatures were more conservative in 2015 than they were in 2014, and far more conservative than they were in 2010. The 2010 and 2014 elections strengthened the right wing, and their leaders decided to take advantage of their new-found power.

Here are some particularly painful examples:

Guns—Progressives were pretty thoroughly out-gunned in state legislatures this year. Texas passed a law to allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns on college campuses and then legalized “open carry.” Kansas allowed residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit or any training. Wisconsin eliminated its long-standing 48 hour waiting period for purchasing guns and allowed off-duty and retired police to carry concealed weapons in public schools. Louisiana enacted legislation to allow the National Rifle Association’s “gun safety” program to be taught in elementary schools. Georgia allowed carrying of concealed weapons in government buildings. Mississippi directed that anyone can transport a loaded pistol without any permit if it’s in a purse, handbag, briefcase or satchel. Maine permitted residents aged 21 or older to carry a concealed weapons without any license. There’s more, but let’s turn to the good side of the issue: Oregon enacted a law requiring universal background checks covering nearly all gun transfers, the sixth state to do so over the past two years.

Discrimination against LGBT people—Despite the historic victory for marriage in the Supreme Court and fine victories in some legislatures, most state LGBT legislation enacted this year promotes discrimination. Yes, Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” was watered down following nationwide protests, but the final version—like another law passed in Arkansas—still encourages individuals and businesses to discriminate. New legislation in Michigan allows taxpayer-funded “faith based” adoption agencies to refuse same-sex couples. The North Carolina legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to assure court officials that they can refuse to participate in same-sex marriages. Oklahoma, Texas and Utah enacted measures asserting that religious and nonprofit organizations can refuse services for same-sex marriages. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback rescinded rules that had protected state employees from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. And Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an executive order asserting that companies, individuals and nonprofits can discriminate against same-sex married couples.

Privatization of public education—The worst education law this year is Nevada’s creation of the broadest school voucher scheme in the country, giving any student’s family about $5,000 toward private school tuition or even home schooling. Nevada also enacted a tuition tax credit bill that allows corporations to offset state taxes with donations to private school scholarship funds. Arizona passed a measure that will give all children living on Indian reservations access to private school vouchers. Montana’s legislature a bill, without the Governor’s signature, to provide tuition tax credits for donations to private education. And the Ohio budget increases the amounts of taxpayer dollars that voucher programs will pay to private schools.

Social services—Kansas enacted cruel limits on TANF recipients, reducing cash withdrawals and banning TANF funds for a long list of uses, including some absurd items like cruises, swimming pools and tattoos. The Missouri legislature overrode a governor’s veto to ratchet down the length of time that a family can have social services benefits and ramp up the requirements for low-income parents to get job training, do volunteer work or complete high school and vocational education. Similarly, Arizona, as part of their budget, reduced the lifetime limit for TANF recipients to the shortest window in the nation—twelve months.

“Right to Work” and Prevailing Wage—Wisconsin a so called “right-to-work” bill, making Wisconsin the 25th state with such a regressive law in place. (A “right-to-work bill passed by the Missouri legislature was killed with veto.) Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner launched an effort to create “right-to-work” zones that would let employees opt out of paying “fair share” fees, although the state Attorney General has said this plan is illegal. The Indiana Legislature repealed the state's 80-year-old prevailing wage law, becoming the first legislature to do so in 27 years. Nevada enacted a law suspending the state's prevailing wage rules on school construction projects. And West Virginia eliminated prevailing wage requirements for construction of public improvements.

Reproductive Rights—From January to June, states enacted no fewer than 51 abortion restrictions—some are being challenged in court. Kansas and Oklahoma became the first and second in the nation to ban the dilation and evacuation procedure that is used for most second-trimester abortions (legislation that is almost certainly unconstitutional). Arkansas and Arizona passed legislation that requires doctors to lie to their patients, telling them that they could potentially reverse the effects of a medication abortion, even though there is no scientific merit to that assertion. Oklahoma and North Carolina required a 72 hour waiting period before a woman could obtain an abortion, while Arkansas and Tennessee imposed 48 hour waiting periods. Arizona passed legislation that bars women on the federal health care exchange from receiving coverage for abortions and adds new reporting requirements for clinics that perform abortions. The West Virginia legislature overrode the governor’s veto to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

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Six key progressive victories in the states and localities

With the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives controlled by the right wing, it’s no wonder that this Congress has been among the least productive in our nation’s history. But while Congress treads water, some real progress has been made in states and localities across America.

Progressive legislators, council members and commissioners are leading some cutting-edge policy debates and enacting a series of innovations, protections and reforms. Admittedly, conservatives have won most of the major state legislative battles this year—I’ll write about that next week. This week, let’s recognize some of the top progressive legislative accomplishments of 2015:

  1. Minimum Wage—Los Angeles became the largest city in America to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage, following the lead of Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland, which passed such legislation last year. In addition, Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear, by executive order, set a new minimum wage for state employees. This builds on momentum from 2014 when minimum wages were increased in Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.

  2. Earned Sick Leave—Oregon became the fourth state to mandate earned sick leave. Companies with ten or more employees will be required to provide up to 40 hours per year of paid sick leave. Similar legislation was enacted this year in Philadelphia; Tacoma, Washington; and Bloomfield, New Jersey making a total of 18 cities that have adopted earned sick leave.

  3. LGBT Rights—Advocates didn’t just wait around for the Supreme Court to rule, they achieved a variety of proactive victories. Utah enacted a ban on discrimination against LGBT people; Maryland expanded its preexisting LGBT nondiscrimination policy with two bills that make it easier for transgender people to obtain an updated birth certificate and prohibit health insurers from discriminating against same-sex couples when it comes to infertility coverage; and Oregon enacted a law that bans so-called “conversion therapy.” At the local level, the Fairfax, Virginia School Board enacted protections for transgender students and staff while Thurmont, West Virginia became the smallest town to enact LGBT anti-discrimination legislation covering housing, employment and public accommodations.
  4. Police Body Cameras—Responding to a series of incidents involving police, legislation facilitating the use of body cameras was enacted in the states of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, as well a variety of cities. South Carolina’s law is the strongest, requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to use body cameras.

  5. Death Penalty—The Nebraska legislature voted 30 to 19 to override the Governor’s veto and abolish the death penalty. Nebraska became the 19th state to repeal the death penalty and the 7th to do so since 2007. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf suspended the death penalty pending review, saying the system was “riddled with flaws.”

  6. Voter Registration—In March, Oregon passed a path-breaking measure to automatically register to vote citizens who have driver’s licenses. This encouraged lawmakers in more than a dozen states to introduce similar legislation. Florida, New Mexico and Oklahoma enacted laws for online voter registration; 27 states and the District of Columbia now authorize online registration. Last but certainly not least, Vermont enacted a law to allow Election Day registration, jointing 13 other states and the District of Columbia.

These policies have the potential to encourage waves of change in the states, and ultimately at the federal level as well. But the fact is, progressives have historically spent less time and effort organizing at the state and local levels while right-wing organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have provided strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers year after year.

It is long-past time for our movement to recognize these kinds of victories, as well as the leaders who made them possible.

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The flag that offends 100 million Americans

We’ve had this discussion before. Over recent years, state and local governments have gradually recognized that flying the Confederate battle flag is offensive and inappropriate. For example, Florida took down that flag in 2001, and even South Carolina took a partial step, removing it from the top of the state capitol building.

Idealog_(3).jpgBut because of the horrific massacre at the Emanuel AME Church, perpetrated by a Confederate flag-waving racist, the issue is back—as well it should be.

Even Mitt Romney has now joined the debate, tweeting “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #CharlestonVictims.”

The issue is simple, really. Symbols can express political values. The Statue of Liberty stands for freedom and a welcome to immigrants. A balance scale stands for equal justice under law. An olive branch symbolizes peace. What political values do the Confederate flag communicate to Americans?

A recent poll asked, “Do you see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Thirty-one percent said that flag is a symbol of racism. That represents about 100 million Americans who see the confederate flag as racist.

But, some might argue, more Americans (41 percent) answered the question with “Southern pride.” Shouldn’t we believe that flag’s supporters when they claim an innocent explanation? No. Those who display the Confederate flag are not stupid and neither are we. They know perfectly well that millions of people abhor that flag; they are displaying it, quite intentionally, to provoke.

After all, that was its purpose. The Confederate battle flag was hardly ever displayed from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1940s and 50s. Segregationists and the Klu Klux Klan resurrected that flag—as historians tell us

as part of a massive resistance campaign against the civil rights movement. It wouldn’t exist in our national popular culture without this moment, when African Americans fought for their equality, and the battle flag was recovered and redeployed as a symbol of opposition to it. What was once a very blatant, full-throated defense of white supremacy has now become this gesture to heritage and history that is presented as though it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement. But it has everything to do with the civil rights movement.

There’s another poll by the Pew Research Center just a few years ago. They asked people, what is your “reaction when you see the Confederate flag displayed—positive, negative or neither?” Only nine percent of Americans answered “positive.” Thirty percent (almost identical to those who say the flag is “racist”) answered “negative,” and the rest said neither or don’t know. So very few feel positive toward display of that flag. Let me suggest the likelihood that means people are fully aware that the flag doesn’t symbolize Southern pride; people are smart enough to know that explanation is a fig leaf to cover up something ugly.

Ironically, it was just a couple of weeks ago when the state of Texas won a case in the Supreme Court by being on the right side of this issue. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., Texas sought to keep the Confederate battle flag off of specialty license plates.

The state’s agency for specialty license plates explained why it rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ proposed design:

[B]ecause public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive, and because such comments are reasonable. The Board finds that a significant portion of the public associate the confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.

If the state of Texas understands this, why doesn’t the state of South Carolina? And if the Charleston mass murderer understands that the Confederate flag represents his racist cause, why doesn’t everyone? Finally, if you sincerely believed that the flag symbolizes Southern pride but understood (as Texas does) that it is highly offensive to millions of your fellow citizens, wouldn’t you find some alternative way to communicate that pride?

It’s not something I say too often, but—Mitt Romney is right.

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School evaluation that’s data driven—over a cliff

Last week, a very distinguished panel convened by the National Research Council published an Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia. The report is 341 pages long and cost millions of dollars to produce. What’s most impressive about this Evaluation is how very far removed from reality it is.

The experts who contributed to the analysis relied principally on data sets that covered the city’s DC-CAS standardized tests, the NAEP nationwide standardized tests, and the local teacher evaluation model called IMPACT. They also considered other data such as graduation rates, attendance, dismissal, and teacher retention. The third of three major recommendations from this Evaluation cannot be denied: the school system needs to address the so-called “achievement gap,” which—as noted elsewhere—has been greatly exacerbated since “school reform” came to the District in 2007.

What are recommendations one and two? The first is to create “a comprehensive data warehouse.” The second is to pay for ongoing independent evaluation of this data. Really.

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Neo-Cons are wrong about “freedom” and “security”

Some war hawks have defended the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a necessity of national “security” while others promoted the war as a defense of “freedom.” Poppycock, in both cases.

“Values” have real meanings, and when our ideological opponents misuse powerful language, we have to call them on it or lose the debate. (Sadly, since 9/11, we have usually lost this particular debate.)

First, the Iraq war had nothing to do with American “freedom.” Our freedoms as citizens of the United States—to say what we want, practice our religion of choice, associate with anyone, enjoy privacy and due process rights, and have access to protections if accused of a crime—were never jeopardized by Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda.

Sure, the freedoms of individual Iraqis were affected by the war, not necessarily in a positive way. But, as we know perfectly well, the proponents of the war did not care a whit about the rights of Iraqis. The invasion had nothing to do with “freedom” and when we let neo-cons misuse the word that way, we hand them a powerful weapon and walk away.

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Three reasons why voters are ignorant of policy facts

No doubt you have heard that the Governor of Texas has promised to monitor a U.S. military training exercise called “Jade Helm 15” because Tea Party websites have whipped millions of Americans into a state of hysteria.

“Jade Helm military exercise is not martial law” reads the headline of a newspaper Fact Check column.

“John McCain calls Jade Helm 15 hysteria ‘bizarre,’” says another headline, this one in the Dallas Morning News.

According to a nationwide Rasmussen poll, 45 percent of American voters “are concerned that the government will use U.S. military training operations to impose greater control over some states,” with 19 percent "very concerned." Apparently, among Tea Party voters, 82 percent are "concerned that the federal government has greater control in mind.”

What in the world is going on?

Nothing unusual. We all know that average Americans are tremendously uninformed about a wide variety of issues, from Obamacare “death panels” to supposedly widespread “voter fraud.” Most Americans think crime is going up, immigrants are overrunning the country, and the U.S. spends huge sums on foreign aid.

There are three reasons why Americans are often painfully ignorant.

 

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The Right Wing Isn’t Crazy, It’s Strategic

So far this year…

  • The Oklahoma House passed legislation to eliminate AP American History classes from public schools because, right-wingers said, the course is too negative about America.
  • The Tennessee House voted to designate the Holy Bible as “the official state book,” ignoring an Attorney General’s opinion that it would be patently unconstitutional.
  • Both Arkansas and Arizona enacted laws requiring doctors to tell patients they could potentially reverse the effects of a medication abortion, an assertion without scientific merit.
  • The Mississippi House approved a bill to exempt the drivers of large church buses from the requirement of possessing a bus driver’s license—nicknamed the “Jesus Take the Wheel Act.”

With bills like these, it’s easy to dismiss the right wing as just plain crazy. Remember the trans-vaginal ultrasound legislation? Know about the Texas bill to allow the open carrying of handguns, even in Houston and Dallas? For that matter, what about the new Kansas law that bars people from using TANF funds to get a tattoo, go to a swimming pool, or take a cruise? A cruise, really? I grew up on what was then just called “welfare” so trust me when I say the monthly support is barely enough money for basic necessities, let alone a cruise.

So, yes, it can seem crazy. But it’s not. It’s strategic.

 

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A Golden Opportunity to Strengthen the “Progressive” Brand

“Progressive” is our nation’s most popular political term, but at the same time, most Americans don’t really know what it means. If we play our cards right, the Democratic presidential primary season can help us define our ideology. This is an exercise in branding.

While we wish that voters considered their electoral choices with a spirit of idealism and a dedication to the common good, that’s not a realistic expectation. Partisan politics requires some elements of marketing. We need swing voters to have a positive general impression about progressives because they will never really understand the details behind progressive policy.

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The Indiana law promoting discrimination is a new low

Last week, Indiana enacted into law SB 101, the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Apparently, proponents were surprised at the nationwide outcry against the law and they adopted a defensive crouch. 

"There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this bill,” the Governor asserts. “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would’ve vetoed it.”

But of course it’s about discrimination! That’s the point of the law. It invites individuals and corporations to violate state and local laws, regulations and rules and claim, as a legal defense in court, that they were following their own religious principles.

On its face, the Indiana law doesn’t mention sexuality. But the measure is aimed at the LGBT community and not others because the state can’t override federal law that protects against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. While other states are filling the gap between federal and state law, passing LGBT Fairness Acts to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, Indiana is going in the opposite direction.

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Promote “fair markets,” not “free markets”

Last week’s column bemoaned the fact that average Americans believe unquestioningly in “free markets,” even though there are no such things. Indeed, every market relies on a dense web of laws and regulations. Subsidies, loopholes, grants, contracts, trade policy, labor law and inconsistent enforcement all warp markets. To say the words “free markets” is to perpetuate a dangerous right-wing myth.

So promote “fair markets,” not free markets. Can this expression help persuade voters? Yes it can. For example, voters already prefer “fair trade” to “free trade.”

More important, every time we say free markets we hurt the progressive cause. Persuadable voters keep two somewhat-contradictory economic concepts in their minds. The words free markets evoke the conservative belief that governments should stay out of the economic sphere and let markets work things out. The phrase fair markets, in contrast, reminds voters of their firm belief that our economic system is rigged to favor the rich and powerful, and that governments should do something about it. We must reinforce the progressive concept, not conservative one.

Beyond pure messaging, “fair markets” should mean something substantive. It should reflect a philosophy. Progressives need to promote worldviews, not just words.

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