Last week, the 2015-2016 legislative session began, with the swearing-in of the 189th General Court, and Governor Charlie Baker the following day. Media attention was focused on the three primary leaders of elected government: Governor Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo. In their first public remarks for this two-year session, each expressed a strong commitment to working together to move the Commonwealth forward.
I cannot remember coming out of a stronger period of grassroots issue organizing leading into a new legislative session. Grassroots organizing can have a tremendous effect on bringing real change on Beacon Hill to pass bills and budget priorities that make a positive difference in the lives of Massachusetts residents. Here are some of the organizing efforts, and legislative opportunities for change this session:
Climate Change. A wide-range of organizations from 350MA.org to Climate XChange to the Environmental League of Massachusetts to the Sierra Club have organized around stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline, increasing the investment in alternative energy, divesting the state pension fund from fossil fuel companies, passing a carbon tax, expanding the state’s energy efficiency programs, and investing in climate resiliency. Most of these ideas, and many others, will be filed as legislation this session.
Racially Biased Policing: Ferguson and Beyond. Outraged citizens, led in many communities by an impressive group of young black activists, took to public spaces and the streets to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner over the past few months. With the aid of organizations such as the NAACP, the ACLU, and the Lawyers’ Civil Rights Committee, legislation is being drafted on racial profiling, police training, stop and frisk policies, the militarization of police, and review processes for civilian deaths.
Criminal Justice reform. Groups such as like Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition have been advocating for changes like CORI reform for years. Now, with the addition of groups like End Mass Incarceration Together and the Mass Restorative Justice Coalition, it seems like an opportunity in the Legislature to reform mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, bail reform, comprehensive rehabilitation of prisoners, restorative justice, and repealing the 5-year suspension of driver’s license for drug violations, among others
Economic Inequality. Massachusetts has one of the largest gaps between the rich and poor in the U.S. The impressive organizing by the Raise Up Mass Coalition, to secure a legislative victory to raise the minimum wage, and a ballot victory to provide earned sick time for workers, marks a turn towards state policy to reduce inequality in Massachusetts. With groups like Mass Alliance, the Coalition for Social Justice, and Progressive Mass continuing to organize, , the stage is set for an even more expansive discussion about how to raise wages for low-income workers, and reverse the decades-old trend of a declining standard of living for a majority of Massachusetts residents. Legislation including expanding the EITC for working families, universal pre-K, investing in higher education, and strengthening consumer protections will all be on the table this session.
Workers’ Rights. The Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers, led by the Brazilian Immigrant Center and including the AFL-CIO, Greater Boston Legal Services, MIRA, and JALSA, was successful in passing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights during the last session. With the increase in wage theft by employers, the growing efforts to unionize fast food restaurants, hospitals, and universities, and a need for greater protections of workers, legislation addressing these areas will surely be coming up.
Each of these grassroots movements has really gained strength over the past two years. However, the activism, energy, and strategic plans to pass legislation that provides shared prosperity for all residents, takes stronger action on climate change, and restores the civil rights of many underprivileged communities across the state will require further vigilance that cannot take a break as the 2015-2016 legislative session begins.
What about the progressive income tax?
Sen. Rosenberg has been working on and promoting various fixes for this. It’s going to take public education to create a political will for this or a constitutional amendment.
We are the only state in the nation whose constitution allows an income tax but prohibits it from being graduated. The same language also prohibits municipalities from taxing income.
“Full power and authority are hereby given and granted to the general court to impose and levy a tax on income in the manner hereinafter provided. Such tax may be at different rates upon income derived from different classes of property, but shall be levied at a uniform rate throughout the commonwealth upon incomes derived from the same class of property. The general court may tax income not derived from property at a lower rate than income derived from property, and may grant reasonable exemptions and abatements.”
So the capital gains tax, for example, can be at a different rate than earned income, but still not graduated.
around 1970, IIRC, had a referendum question that called for a graduated income tax. It failed, of course. I don’t know how many times it has come up again since then, if any. I voted for the losing side.
it made it to the ballot was 1994 and it got clobbered when Barbara Anderson waged a crafty and cynical campaign against it calling it a “tax trap.” She was out-spent by millions of dollars but still carried the day. I am guessing that most of the funders (unions) of the last constitutional amendment won’t pony up the multiples of millions needed to run a serious campaign so proposals to amend this part of the Constitution do not carry a lot of credibility.
All of the ideas listed are nice, but they’re small bore and won’t come anywhere close to closing the inequality gap. What about a guaranteed basic income?
But they won’t get past Gov. Baker, and likely wouldn’t get past committee. Jamie identifies key policy areas where we have some alignment with the Governor, alignment with Senate leadership, and maybe we can persuade movement in the house. I am all for incremental changes when we have a concerted strategy to follow through and build on them.
Progressives got commitments from President Rosenberg as make a more ‘small d’ democratic chamber. It is absolutely crucial to hold the line on DeLeo’s term limits, and to ensure his successor makes similar commitments. Even if the successor is not an ideological progressive, anyone willing to cede the power back to members and to advance more intriguing policy solutions to the floor itself, should be considered.
We are blessed and fortunate to have legislators who faithfully represent the vision and initiatives of the citizens of Massachusetts, both on the State and Congressional level. This is also the results of much hard work by every level participating.
I urge us all to up our activism, and invite others to join us. Visiting the Kansas/Missouri area of my childhood over the holidays, I heard many stories of heroic struggle where the thumbs of the hardhearted elites weigh heavily against extending health care and disability to those most in need, common sense gun laws, renewable energy initiatives, while tax cuts are gutting their children’s education and future.
As our most recent elections demonstrated, we cannot take our relative advantage for granted. There is no short cut for developing public will to help craft and enact public policy with the funds and regulations to enforce them. Talk and listen to your neighbors, colleagues,friends, family. Engage them with the dedicated and fun-loving people in grassroots organizations. Encourage them to communicate with and support our legislators who are the most accessible and competent in the nation. If you live somewhere in Massachusetts where you don’t experience this, I’d be happy to talk with you to strategize how to change that! (as a fellow citizen and experienced organizer–this is not an advertisement).