Victory Comes from the States and Localities

Posted on January 29, 2014

When President Obama presented his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, progressives applauded on the outside but grumbled on the inside. Lipstick on a pig notwithstanding, our federal government is hopeless. Last year we saw a do-less-than-nothing Congress, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. The President will continue to cajole, congressional right-wingers will continue to obstruct, and almost nothing positive will happen in Washington.

But there is little-noticed good news. Real progress is being made in states and localities across America. Progressive legislators, council members and commissioners are leading the newest policy debates and enacting a wide range of innovations, protections and reforms. These lawmakers are at the vanguard of the progressive movement and we need to recognize their accomplishments.

The Public Leadership Institute, in collaboration with ALICE, recently published a report, Progress in the States and Localities, which features 177 significant victories and 44 defeats in 2013. Here are the highlights of that report, the top ten most important progressive victories of the past year:


  1. Marriage Equality—2013 was the best year ever for the marriage equality movement. Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and Rhode Island enacted the legislation this year. Marriage equality also became law in California, New Jersey and New Mexico as a result of court rulings. Marriage between same-sex couples is now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, jurisdictions which comprise more than 1/3rd of the U.S. population.
  2. Minimum Wage—Five states raised their minimum wage in 2013: California, Connecticut, New Jersey (by referendum), New York and Rhode Island. Bernalillo County, New Mexico increased their minimum wage to $8.50/hour. Voters in the city of SeaTac, Washington approved an increase to $15/hour for airport workers. Officials in the District of Columbia and neighboring Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland made a pact to jointly raise the minimum wage to $11.50; three legislative councils have passed it and so far one has been signed (Prince George’s). These 2013 victories provide tremendous momentum for this powerful, popular issue in the coming year.
  3. Foreclosure Protection—The danger of underwater mortgages leading to foreclosures continues across the country. The city of Richmond, California took a dramatic step, becoming the first to pass an ordinance using the power of eminent domain to compel the restructuring of some mortgage loans. Now jurisdictions all over the country are studying this policy, one of the strongest and most direct solutions to the foreclosure problem.
  4. Genetically Modified Foods—Connecticut became the first state to enact legislation to require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. Unlike the U.S., the European Union has a comprehensive system for controlling genetically modified foods.
  5. Protecting Immigrants—While the U.S. House ignored a Senate-passed effort to reform immigration law, states and cities came down decisively on the side of immigrants. California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont and the District of Columbia passed laws to allow immigrants access to driver’s licenses without regard to immigration status. Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon approved state Dream Acts to provide in-state college tuition to high school graduates regardless of immigration status. Other jurisdictions, including California, Connecticut and New York City, limited the circumstances when they would cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration law.
  6. Collective Bargaining—Progressives worked to turn the tide on the war against organized labor. Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont enacted laws expanding the right to collective bargaining for home-care and childcare workers, while Oregon prohibited state and local government employers from using public funds to influence union organizing drives.
  7. Family Leave—New York City and Portland, Oregon enacted ordinances requiring private employers to guarantee paid sick leave. California and Minnesota expanded existing family leave programs. Rhode Island created a broad program of Temporary Caregiver Insurance so that workers can take up to four weeks of leave at two-thirds of regular pay to care for an ailing family member or new child.
  8. Gun Safety—While Congress rejected all attempts to improve federal gun law, 21 states enacted stronger gun laws in 2013. The most significant tightened restrictions on semiautomatic assault weapons in California, Connecticut and Chicago; required background checks for all gun sales in Colorado, Delaware and Illinois; limited ammunition magazines in California and Colorado; implemented gun registration in Hawaii and fingerprint background checks in Maryland; and mandated a handgun safety certificate in California.
  9. Pay It Forward—Oregon began the creation of a pilot program to enable students to attend college for free, paying a percentage of their income for a number of years afterwards in order to finance free educations for students who come after them. This is one of the most innovative ideas to solve our nation’s problem of overwhelming student debt.
  10. Medicaid Expansion—The state policy that had the greatest impact on the greatest number of Americans in 2013 was acceptance of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Twenty-five states, covering 52 percent of Americans, agreed to the expansion. This will provide health insurance to nine million people, as well as thousands of new healthcare jobs to those states. (In addition to the 25 expansion states, Indiana and Pennsylvania are seeking waivers to implement Medicaid expansion.)

The fact is, right-wing organizations have long understood the importance of state and local policy and they have responded by providing strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers, most publicly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC provides model bills and talking points on a wide array of issues, and networks lawmakers to each other and to interest groups to help enact that legislation.

This year, the Public Leadership Institute and ALICE formed a partnership to help counter ALEC. With 1,300 model and exemplary laws, ALICE is the only online source for easy-to-use state and local policy toolkits on a wide range of issues. With 13,000 state and local elected officials, the Public Leadership Institute has by far the largest network of progressive lawmakers. Together our groups wrote the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities 2014 and are delivering it to thousands of elected officials.

But it is, of course, the whole progressive movement that won these victories in the states over the past year. It will take all of us fighting together to continue the success into 2014.