Tuesday, March 12, 2013

byLaura Clawson
SUN MAR 10, 2013 AT 04:55 PM PDT

There are opportunities out there to pass better laws. One of the ways the nation's laws keep getting ratcheted backward is that every time Republicans take over a legislative body, they immediately go to work voting through a predictable, awful package of laws—laws restricting women's reproductive freedom, taking aim at unions, cutting corporate taxes, privatizing education, allowing guns in schools, weakening equal pay and workplace safety protections. When Democrats take over a legislative body, their actions are comparatively weak tea. There are a lot of reasons for that. Republicans have ALEC to provide them with pre-written bills, of course. They have far-right billionaires pushing them with promises of big donations and threats of primaries. We recently found out about another reason in the study finding that Republican legislators think their constituents are far, far more conservative than they actually are, while Democratic legislators think their constituents are slightly more conservative than they actually are. So we understand there are reasons for this divergence between how aggressively Republicans push their agenda when in power and how aggressively Democrats do. But the divergence is so extreme it's hard to even say what laws Democrats should be pushing when they gain a majority in a state legislature. And that's the question: What could that agenda look like?

Obviously where Republicans get into office and immediately lower taxes for big corporations and wealthy people, it would be good if Democrats would close tax loopholes or raise taxes, making corporations and the wealthy pay something closer to their fair share. California votersactually did part of that last November, with Prop 30. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is also pushing a major tax overhaul to make the tax system simpler and more progressive while raising revenue to invest in education and transportation. And, indeed, when you raise revenue, there are tons of investments that suddenly become possible: education from pre-kindergarten through college, clean energy, public transit, roads and bridges, bike paths, sewer systems and clean water, increased oversight of the environmental and workplace protections you have—so many things that Republicans ignore or say we can't afford or flat-out hate.

Raising revenue and using it to invest in the future is the first and most important thing Democrats could do. But it's not the only thing. Just as Republicans pass bills attacking choice and unions in addition to cutting taxes at the top, there's plenty Democrats could do that's not about taxes but would (unlike all those Republican laws) make people's lives better, as we'll discuss below the fold.


Raise the minimum wage: Raising the minimum wage is a popular policy that's the right thing to do, raising working people out of poverty

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have increased the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25, with 10 having tied it to inflation so that minimum-wage workers get a raise every year if prices are going up. While it's obvious that states that are stuck with the federal rate at $7.25 should do something about that, plenty of the states that have a higher minimum wage are nowhere near high enough, and while Michigan, at $7.40 an hour, isn't likely to improve given its hard-right current government, Rhode Island should be able to do better than $7.40. Massachusetts and California should be able to do better than $8.00.

Pass paid sick leave: Right now, Connecticut is the only state that has mandated paid sick leave, a stark contrast with the fact that the United States is one of very few nations that don't require any paid sick leave. San Francisco, Seattle, and the District of Columbia have also passed sick leave laws. But again, there should be more Democratic-controlled state and local governments willing to step up and pass such an important policy for workers and for public health. In New York City, a sick leave law is being blocked by council speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, despite strong council and popular support for it.

As with raising the minimum wage, low-wage employers make a lot of scary claims about likely negative impacts on hiring and on small businesses, but the facts don't bear them out.

Strengthen penalties for wage theft and misclassification of workers: It's already illegal to pay workers less than the minimum wage, or to fail to pay overtime to overtime-eligible workers, or to just plain not pay workers what you owe them. Misclassifying workers as independent contractors is also illegal, and robs the government as well as workers. But it doesn't really help for things to be illegal if the penalties don't scare anyone away from doing them. Ideally, states would also increase budgets for enforcement. But even with enforcement budgets at current levels, increasing the penalties on employers caught stealing wages, asChicago recently did, or, as California has done, on employers misclassifying workers, would serve as some kind of deterrent.

Pass marriage equality: This one's obviously gathering steam, with nine states and the District of Columbia having passed marriage equality, whether through the courts, the legislatures, or at the polls. Already there's an effort to get it on the ballot in Oregon for 2014 (to which you can give here). But especially as polling shifts toward equality and voters are following through on that on election day, state legislatures should start taking action, at least where there aren't anti-equality laws passed by voters in the past that need to be overturned first.

Offer new parents the job protections they need: A lot of laws fall under this umbrella, andtoo few states offer any of them. We're talking about paid family and medical leave, job-protected family and medical leave, job-protected medical leave for pregnancy disability, flexible use of leave time, and nursing mothers' rights—all laws California has and several of which Connecticut has. This is another area where the U.S. lags behind virtually every other nation.

Make it easier, not harder, to vote: Just as Republicans have a lot of ways to make it harder to vote, Democrats should be passing ways to make it easier. That could include same-day registration, added days of early voting, vote by mail, and much more. Again, the models are out there—it's just a matter of applying them to more states.

None of these are remotely radical suggestions. They're already the law of states or cities or other nations. And if Democrats were as aggressive as Republicans, we'd have long since moved past things as basic as full-time work shouldn't leave you in poverty and sick people should be able to stay home from work. But wouldn't it be nice if we could rely on Democrats to make a real drive for policies like these, the way Republicans do for all their awfulness?

There's so much more out there to be done, too. Tougher environmental regulations. Laws to protect choice as a reality, not just a theory. Democratic legislators need to start catching up with their Republican counterparts and implementing a real agenda.

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