State Legislatures as "Laboratories Of Democracy"

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 existing programs.

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 bodies.

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 States."

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 legislative races.

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 contracts.

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 prisons suffer.

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.

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