It’s easy to keep our focus on high profile national politics, especially with the circus that is the 2016 presidential election happening before us. But given the mess that is Congress right now, a lot of the real policymaking action is in the states. Conservatives have recognized this for a long time, and have invested time and money into stacking state legislatures with right-wing politicians. With the help of groups like ALEC, they’ve spread horrible laws like stand your ground and targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) laws.
When state legislatures take bold steps, it sets a precedent around the country. Something that might have seemed outside the mainstream starts to become the norm. It’s had devastating effects when conservatives have done it, but we’ve also seen the way a positive wave can spread–raising the minimum wage in cities and states has suddenly become a lot more likely than it was few years ago.
California likes to think of itself as a national leader, and while we still have a lot of work to do, the most recent legislative session is a testament to the importance of building progressive political power in states and setting the bar for other states to follow. Just a few of the groundbreaking pieces of legislation signed into law this year:
- The strongest equal pay law in the country. The California Fair Pay Act closes loopholes that have stymied wage discrimination lawsuits in the past. It provides women more leeway in arguing that they are doing “substantially similar work” and deserve equal pay. As bill co-author Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said, “It will mean, for instance, that the female housekeepers that clean rooms in a hotel could legally challenge the higher wages paid to their male janitor counterparts who clean the lobby.”
- Curbing racial profiling. In the face of staunch opposition from law enforcement, California enacted a law to require public reporting of race and other demographic information for people stopped by police, and clarifies and expands the definition of profile to include other characteristics like gender. This kind of data is critical to prove patterns of abuse, and it’s obviously needed as one of the apparently delusional opponents of the bill from law enforcement said, “There is no racial profiling. There just isn’t.”
- Supporting death with dignity. After a contentious debate, California became the fifth state to allow terminally ill patients to obtain medication to end their lives at the time of their choosing. The family of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to take advantage of their right-to-die law, was critical in inspiring the compassion and understanding necessary to convince legislators and the governor that this was an important step.
- Fighting back against anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers. It’s been notoriously difficult to crack down on CPCs, fake clinics that lie to women to get them in the door and then shame and manipulate them to keep them from accessing birth control and abortion. Several previous attempts to mitigate the damage they do have been struck down in court on free speech claims. California’s Reproductive FACT Act became the first statewide law to fight back, requiring unlicensed facilities to tell women they are not doctors, and licensed ones to inform women about financial assistance for reproductive health care, including abortion. (Disclosure: I worked on the campaign to pass this bill.)
- Expanding sexual education, including affirmative consent. Following a bill last year to improve consent education on college campuses, California became the first state in the nation to require teaching affirmative consent in high schools. On top of that, another bill signed into law mandates sexual education with neutral information on a number of topics, including pregnancy outcomes and LGBTQ issues.
These laws didn’t just happen. Activists in the state identified problems and had a vision for how to push the envelope. They rallied public support and partnered with progressive legislators. These laws improve the lives of Californians, and they also set new expectations for what is viable and how to address some of our biggest challenges. Sadly, in many states progressives are stuck playing defense against horrible laws. Those of us lucky enough to live in states where we can build and exert political power have a responsibility to keep moving this vision forward in a way that can spread across the country.