The start of a new year is a time for reflection, and looking back at 2016, it brought an election that has upended progressive power in this country. Donald Trump will soon take over the presidency, and conservatives will retain full control over both chambers of Congress. The news is not much better outside of Washington, where conservatives have historic control of state governments throughout the nation.
It’s against this backdrop that progressives must not only reflect on where we have been, but also develop a major course correction in our approach to our world. This change in direction must begin and end outside of Washington, and it should focus on rebuilding community by community in states across the country. In the states is where we can build opposition to what conservatives will be pushing from D.C., develop a farm team of elected officials, and provide a contrasting vision for how—as progressives—we have the right vision and solutions to address the needs of America’s working- and middle-class families.
This is why the 2017 legislative session will be among the most important in the history of our country. We have already seen, in special sessions over recent weeks, conservatives in North Carolina disregard the will of the voters and undercut the incoming governor’s ability to do his job. Also in North Carolina, conservatives went back on their word and decided to continue to uphold HB2—or the so-called “bathroom bill”—which will cost the state millions in revenue and result in a significant loss of jobs. And just a few weeks ago in Michigan, House conservatives pushed through a historically regressive voter ID bill that, although stalled in the Senate, only served to suppress people’s basic right to vote.
This is just a preview. We know groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity are working with conservative legislators and corporate lobbyists to continue to push an agenda that undermines civil rights, consumer protections, public education, environmental protections, and much more. They plan to replicate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip fundamental rights away from working people. They want to remove many of the remaining constraints on polluting our lakes and waterways. They are trying to call a Constitutional Convention that would rewrite the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights according to their radical, right-wing interpretation. They even want to repeal the 17th Amendment that gave us the right to vote for U.S. senators. It is remarkable that a conservative movement that claims to praise the Constitution appears willing to tear it apart for partisan advantage.
Despite all of this, there is also an opportunity to build off the successes that progressive state lawmakers had this past year. For example, in 2016, with the help of the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), equal pay bills were signed into law in Delaware, Maryland, Nebraska, and Utah. Vermont and West Virginia became the third and fourth states to enact automatic voter registration (AVR), which eliminates major barriers to voting—with AVR also passing by ballot initiative in Alaska and going into effect administratively in Connecticut. And New York became the fourth state with a paid family and medical leave law on the books, while Vermont became the fifth state to codify paid sick days into law. Many of these policy fights were detailed in the 2016 End-of-Session Legislative Report that SiX released last July.
Building on these gains, paid family and medical leave and paid sick days legislation will be introduced across the country this coming year—with lawmakers in states like Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Vermont leading the way. Legislators in Georgia and Tennessee are expected to fight for Medicaid expansion in their states. Equal pay will once again be on the legislative agenda in states like Florida, Oklahoma, and Washington, while a battle over raising the minimum wage will likely play out in Mississippi.
This year will also mark the first time progressive lawmakers find themselves facing a federal government so profoundly hostile to American values, traditions, and institutions. States will face tough choices on whether to implement an agenda that—among other things—could push policies calling for the mass deportation of immigrants, a registry for Muslims, and the removal of health care for millions as well as the social safety net. The federal government depends heavily on state partnerships to implement its agenda, and SiX will be working with legislators on how to use state powers not only to oppose these policies but to put forward a contrasting vision that is inclusive, enriches democracy instead of undermining it, and protects working- and middle-class families.
Now more than ever before, as 2017 legislative sessions begin to take shape across the country, state lawmakers will be on the front lines of the fight to advance and defend progress nationwide. While Trump and his conservative allies in Congress attempt to push an agenda that puts Wall Street first, the leadership of these legislators will be critical in driving policies that support Main Street—and in spearheading the resistance at the state and local level. SiX will proudly support them every step of the way.