Listening to what passes these days for debates in the U. S House of
Representatives and the U. S. Senate, it is easy to get the impression
there are no new ideas left-certainly no new progressive ideas or
suggestions that there might be solutions to the nation's multitude of
social and economic problems. At best, what little energy progressive
members can muster is exhausted on efforts to halt the rollback of
The dimming of the vigor and effectiveness of the national legislature
is placing a new focus on state legislators, who for so long were
regarded as poor cousins to their national counterparts in Washington.
But, that's changing in many states. Progressive groups and low and
moderate income families and minorities are often finding state
legislatures-and city councils-more responsive to their needs than the
lawmakers in Washington.
For years, most state legislatures were in session for only a short few
months each year or, in some cases, met only every other year. Staff
were few in number and often inexperienced. Legislative research was
limited or non existent and, as a result, corporate lobbyists shaped the
debates and largely controlled the major products of state legislative
While there remain legislatures not far removed from those practices, a
growing number of states have adopted longer annual sessions. They also
have better trained staff, more professional staff, open meeting laws
and electronic-age information systems independent of lobbyists so eager
to serve as "volunteer researchers."
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis envisioned the state legislatures
as "laboratories of democracy" willing to tackle new and innovative
approaches in meeting the needs of society. Brandeis would have
applauded the efforts of the Center for Policy Alternatives which has
just released a comprehensive 204-page "Progressive Platform For the
The platform is designed as a state and local candidates briefing book
on approaches to a litany of pressing domestic concerns --predatory
lending, living wages, health care, consumer protections drug pricing,
voting rights, racial profiling, workers compensation, family leave-a
sweeping array - that hopefully will be debated in this year's state
The Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives - Tim
McFeeley - is enthusiastic about what some state legislatures can and
have accomplished while the U. S. Congress is increasingly rendered
impotent by special interests.
"Today, it is state legislators who are proposing the nation's most
far-reaching, proactive measures, McFeeley says. "They are making
legislatures a testing ground for the newest political debates. For
progressives, the action is in the states."
One of the areas where states - and some municipalities - have been
increasingly active has been in efforts to curb predatory lending.
States like North Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico and New Jersey have
enacted anti-predatory laws to stop destructive lending practices
characterized by high interest rates, excessive fees, costly financing
of unnecessary insurance, balloon payments and outlandish pre-payment
penalties imposed to prevent borrowers from escaping abusive loan
The Congress, instead of taking similar action at the federal level, has
seen legislators like Representative Robert Ney of Ohio propose a weak
federal law on predatory lending designed to effectively preempt
stronger and more effective state action against the predators. Even
worse, John (Jerry) Hawke, the U. S. Comptroller of the Currency, has
issued sweeping regulations designed to increase his ability to block
(preempt) state lawsfrom curbing predatory practices. And Congress has
done nothing to curb this grab for more power at the expense of borrowers.
The Center sees a great opportunity for states to provide leadership on
holding down the cost of prescription drugs. In recent years, 26 states
have implemented programs to lower drug prices. Maine, for example,
enacted legislation that directs the state to use its bulk purchasing
power to negotiate drug discounts for the uninsured.
Similarly, the Center's Platform points to efforts by states to close
the pay gaps that exist for women and minorities. One option is the
enactment of state "Fair Pay Acts" which prohibit pay differentials for
workers performing similar tasks. More than 20 years ago, Minnesota
enacted equal pay requirements for public sector workers.
The Platform also urges progressive state legislatures to take the lead
in slowing down the move to privatize prisons, pointing out that when
profit is the primary motive, quality of services and public safety in
On the corporate accountability front, the Center urges that states
monitor more closely the $50 billion in state and municipal subsidies
that often take the form of tax breaks. Last year, Illinois enacted a
landmark corporate accountability law, requiring annual progress from
companies which receive assistance and providing for the recapturing of
tax credits from companies that do not fulfill their obligations.
But if the Center for Policy Alternatives is right, there is hope that
some new progressive initiatives can take hold in state legislatures and
that these budding "laboratories for democracy" can lead to a new
progressive agenda at the national level. I have one small suggestion
for the Center - don't limit the distribution of the Progressive
Platform just to the state legislative candidates. Get a version of it
in the hands of every candidate for Congress. If there was ever a group
that needed new ideas-and a sense ofpurpose-it's the current occupants
of Capitol Hill.
For more information about a progressive agenda: www.stateaction.org