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Taking It to the States | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Taking It to the States

As Bush begins his second term today, progressives must fight hard in DC against the dismantling and rollback of the twentieth century's hard-earned rights and liberties. But with legislative--and this week, literal--gridlock in our capitol city, it's time to recognize that the road to renewal may well run through the states.

As Justice Louis Brandeis argued in the 1930s, "It is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments."

A savvy progressive state-based strategy (and some of the smartest minds in politics today are at work crafting this ) would seize on this "happy accident," and turn to the states to develop and promote the reforms and ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda. Here's a quick guide to ten initiatives (in both red and blue states) that are already winning beyond the Beltway.

1) Raising the Minimum Wage: George W. won't even consider raising the federal minimum wage, but in November 2004, a whopping 71 percent of Florida's voters approved a referendum that raised the minimum wage above the miserly federal figure of $5.15 an hour. Nevada voters did the same. In New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Vermont, the state legislatures have followed suit; fourteen states now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government's.

2) Promoting Tax Fairness: In the November election, California voters approved by a three to one margin tax increases on those making more than $1 million a year--and earmarked the proceeds for mental health programs. In recent years, several states "both red and blue"--Nebraska and North Carolina among them--have adopted legislation "decoupling" state law from Bush's 2001 revisions to the tax code which ultimately "would prevent the total elimination of estate taxes in 2010," says the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Thirty states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March 2002. Last year, the Virginia state legislature voted to raise taxes by $1.6 billion to provide more resources for education and other state programs, and in November Maine voters rejected a cap on property taxes.

3) Promoting Clean Elections: The Maine state legislature approved the Clean Election Act, which provides public financing to those candidates who refuse to use private donations or their own money to finance their campaigns. Well over 50 percent of Maine's legislators have run "clean money" campaigns. Voters in Arizona and Vermont have recently approved "clean money" ballot initiatives, and Arizona became the first state to elect a governor under the clean money system.

4) Protecting the Environment: In 2002, California enacted the nation's toughest law to limit car and truck emissions--thus reducing greenhouse gases, antagonizing the automobile industry and dealing a blow to SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles. In the past two years, six other states including Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey have adopted California's tough new emissions standards--spearheading the fight for clean air and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Other victories: In this past election, Colorado voted to promote renewable energy, and Washington State voted to ban nuclear waste dumping.

5) Promoting Stem Cell Research: More good news from the Golden State! In November, California voters rejected Bush's cynical policy on stem cell research when they approved, 59 to 41, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The law will raise $350 million to support stem cell research in the hopes of ultimately finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases. One San Diego scientist predicted that the law would establish in California a "mini-NIH" that will give a much-needed shot in the arm to stem cell research.

6) Reinstating Overtime Pay: In August, the Bush Administration prevented millions of Americans from collecting overtime pay when it approved regulations narrowing the list of those eligible. Illinois rejected this anti-worker policy, however, passing a law reinstating overtime pay for workers in the state. Twenty states have created overtime rules that are more expansive than the ones that the Bush Administration has adopted.

7) Providing Access to Emergency Contraception Pills: In 2003, two FDA committees advised the FDA to make emergency contraception pills available to women over the counter. The pills were declared safe and they were declared efficacious. But the FDA rejected its committees' recommendations, so Maine, California and Hawaii, among others, have passed rules making this option available to women who go to their neighborhood pharmacy. And New York and New Mexico require that rape victims in emergency rooms must be offered emergency contraception.

8) Outlawing Racial Profiling: Montana, New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois and other states have banned racial profiling, fighting off John Ashcroft's efforts to target and detain Muslims simply, in many instances, because of who they are.

9) Financing Public Education:This past election, Nevada voted to require its legislators to fund K-12 education before anything else. Oklahoma created a lottery system to raise money for public education, and North Carolina chose to put money collected from fines into its public school system, as well as to require more equitable distribution of state money among the rich and poor school districts.

10) Protecting the Rights of Death Row Inmates: Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and four other states have reformed their death penalty laws, giving those on death row the right to DNA testing. Illinois undertook a comprehensive re-examination of its death row system; after the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment found widespread flaws and abuses, the Illinois state legislature adopted many of the eighty-five reforms that the Commission had recommended. In Wyoming and South Dakota, juvenile executions have been banned.

So, let's not hang our heads this Black Thursday but instead recognize that these are victories to build on in the next years. As Joel Rogers--director of The Center on Wisconsin Strategy, one of the savviest and most effective state policy groups around--wrote last year in these pages, progressives urgently need to develop and implement a more comprehensive and ambitious state strategy, building on the policy victories and organizing already underway.

Faced with four more years of Bush and DC gridlock,that's what I call a smart and winning agenda for a second term.

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