OPINION | Beyond indignation and toward progressive policy-making, state-by-state


U.S. Sen. Al “Landslide” Franken kicked off a national meeting of progressive leaders in Duluth earlier this month with an opening declaration that “moral indignation is great!’’

Then he added, a little sheepishly and with his trademark perfect timing: “It’s just not very attractive. It’s a lesson I’ve learned.”

His confession, about how his own indignation made his election closer than it should have been, drew knowing laughter from the crowd of about 200 think-tank directors, advocacy groups organizers, and Duluth citizens at a meeting sponsored by the A.H. Zeppa Foundation and directed by the Commonweal Institute, based in California.

And the Progressive Roundtable conference that followed was suffused with the theme that if there is to be a progressive renaissance, it needs to be animated by a spirit of constructive and practical problem-solving, piece-by-piece, and state-by-state.

About 70 progressive thinkers and actors from 20 states got down to business over the next three days, resolved to fume and to fret less, to stop waiting for the more progressive leadership in the White House and in the federal government to deliver all the goods, and to actually change policy state-by-state.

The common goal is to fulfill the progressive mandate expressed by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, restated by an emotional Franken, to “improve people’s lives.” And by the way, that philosophy has been a fundamental underpinning of progressive Republicanism in Minnesota history too.

There was general consensus that anti-government, anti-tax, hard-line conservatives have done a better job of coordinating their policy offensives in the states over the last few decades.

And the “one big takeaway” from the Duluth conference, said Commonweal Executive Director Barry Kendall, was that “progressive leaders are not as connected to the legislatures as they should be… and think tanks and grassroots groups are not as connected as they should be, even within states and regions.”

“States are the check and balance on federal inaction,” said Nathan Newman, interim executive director of the Progressive States Network, in a presentation that included an encouraging catalogue of missions recently accomplished, some in traditionally “red” or conservative states.

Among the highlights:

• About 10 states have increased income tax rates on high earners or adjusted capital gains rates to both raise revenue for disastrous budget shortages and to provide a fairer tax distribution. Newman’s report pointed out that states that enacted large tax increases to address the last economic crisis actually had stronger growth in the recovery of 2003-2006 than states that did not increase taxes at all. Minnesota was one of the no new taxes states that performed poorly in the last recovery and now lags the nation on key economic indicators.

• While Franken emphasized that the proposed federal health care legislation represents one of the most important progressive breakthroughs in American history, states acting on their own have been able to provide health care to 20 million more Americans through state-run programs in the last two decades. And even in the current budget free-fall, states have actually expanded taxpayer-supported programs to expand coverage to children and immigrants. Connecticut, without much fanfare, has broken ground on a “public option plan” that creates a public choice for citizens and is analogous to Obama’s proposal.

• While conservatives have been effective in organizing anti-immigrant sentiment and initiatives in too many states over the last decade, many of those same states have quietly counter-attacked with policies that assimilate and integrate and find a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, including English language instruction.

• Progressive economic development strategies – including extension of public broadband access, investments in training for green jobs, extension of unemployment benefits to low-wage workers, and prevention of draconian cuts in public education – have made real progress in dozens of states.

Much of this effort, Newman pointed out, was made possible by the hundreds of billions of emergency recovery dollars forwarded to the states by the Obama administration. And conservative caterwauling to the contrary on the effectiveness of the recovery effort, the Great Recession could easily have become a Great Depression without this emergency relief and investment in basic community infrastructure.

Quoting Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, Newman warned about the dangers of “50 Herbert Hoovers,” state governors like Minnesota’s own Gov. Tim Pawlenty, “who are slashing spending in a time of recession, often at the expense both of their most vulnerable constituents and of the nation’s economic future.”

Minnesota, once a beacon of progressive innovation and effectiveness, was missing from most of the lists of successful efforts to either raise revenues to address the historic shortfall or forge ahead with new ways to improve the health, education and general welfare of its citizens.

All this could change rapidly with the assurance of a new governor in 2011 and the 2010 Minnesota Legislature needs to begin laying the groundwork for a progressive and practial renaissance. It can begin to focus not just on more money and more programs, but new technology, new ways to finance and deliver services and broaden prosperity in Minnesota beyond the 10 percent of the population at the top that has benefitted disproportionately in the last 30 years, through boom and bust.

Much depends on progressives and moderates reframing their thinking around the idea of “the legislative wing of the progressive movement,” Newman noted, and not waiting on Washington. States that move out on their own provide examples for others and give strength to progressive policy-makers in Congress as well. And President Obama, himself a former state legislator, has been specific about a new kind of federalism in which states take the lead in advancing progress rather than invoking “states’ rights” imperative to stop it.

“Throughout our history,” Obama said in a recent memorandum urging more state prerogatives in policy-making, “state and local governments have frequently protected health, safety and the environment more aggressively than has the national government.”

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a think tank that focuses on state-and-local tax-and-budget issues, and was a participant in the Progressive Roundtable event in Duluth.

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