Six key progressive victories in the states and localities

Posted on July 6, 2015

With the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives controlled by the right wing, it’s no wonder that this Congress has been among the least productive in our nation’s history. But while Congress treads water, some real progress has been made in states and localities across America.

Progressive legislators, council members and commissioners are leading some cutting-edge policy debates and enacting a series of innovations, protections and reforms. Admittedly, conservatives have won most of the major state legislative battles this year—I’ll write about that next week. This week, let’s recognize some of the top progressive legislative accomplishments of 2015:

  1. Minimum Wage—Los Angeles became the largest city in America to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage, following the lead of Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland, which passed such legislation last year. In addition, Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear, by executive order, set a new minimum wage for state employees. This builds on momentum from 2014 when minimum wages were increased in Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.
  2. Earned Sick Leave—Oregon became the fourth state to mandate earned sick leave. Companies with ten or more employees will be required to provide up to 40 hours per year of paid sick leave. Similar legislation was enacted this year in Philadelphia; Tacoma, Washington; and Bloomfield, New Jersey making a total of 18 cities that have adopted earned sick leave.
  3. LGBT Rights—Advocates didn’t just wait around for the Supreme Court to rule, they achieved a variety of proactive victories. Utah enacted a ban on discrimination against LGBT people; Maryland expanded its preexisting LGBT nondiscrimination policy with two bills that make it easier for transgender people to obtain an updated birth certificate and prohibit health insurers from discriminating against same-sex couples when it comes to infertility coverage; and Oregon enacted a law that bans so-called “conversion therapy.” At the local level, the Fairfax, Virginia School Board enacted protections for transgender students and staff while Thurmont, West Virginia became the smallest town to enact LGBT anti-discrimination legislation covering housing, employment and public accommodations.
  4. Police Body Cameras—Responding to a series of incidents involving police, legislation facilitating the use of body cameras was enacted in the states of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, as well a variety of cities. South Carolina’s law is the strongest, requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to use body cameras.
  5. Death Penalty—The Nebraska legislature voted 30 to 19 to override the Governor’s veto and abolish the death penalty. Nebraska became the 19th state to repeal the death penalty and the 7th to do so since 2007. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf suspended the death penalty pending review, saying the system was “riddled with flaws.”
  6. Voter Registration—In March, Oregon passed a path-breaking measure to automatically register to vote citizens who have driver’s licenses. This encouraged lawmakers in more than a dozen states to introduce similar legislation. Florida, New Mexico and Oklahoma enacted laws for online voter registration; 27 states and the District of Columbia now authorize online registration. Last but certainly not least, Vermont enacted a law to allow Election Day registration, jointing 13 other states and the District of Columbia.

These policies have the potential to encourage waves of change in the states, and ultimately at the federal level as well. But the fact is, progressives have historically spent less time and effort organizing at the state and local levels while right-wing organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have provided strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers year after year.

It is long-past time for our movement to recognize these kinds of victories, as well as the leaders who made them possible.