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The Case for Proactive State Policy

Lauren Boc - 04/04/2019

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Why campaign for bills that can’t pass this year?

Indivisible is bringing the fight to the state level this year—we’re advocating for progressive policies to expand pro-democracy policy, health care access, environmental justice, and more issues that Congressional Republicans are stalling on the federal level. We’ve already celebrated some exciting victories in new democratic trifecta states like New York and Illinois, but we aren’t just interested in easy wins. We believe in advocating for bold proactive policy everywhere, even in states where it’s unlikely to pass during this session.

We get this question a lot: with limited time and resources, shouldn’t we just focus on defense or compromise bills that we think we can pass this year? Of course, the answer depends on your state, but especially in states without the political landscape for progressive wins this session, the answer is often no. There are a lot of great reasons to fight for progressive policies that aren’t likely to pass during this session, including messaging, laying the groundwork for future wins, and building the case for upcoming elections.

Policy is a messaging tool

A messaging bill is one proposed by a representative that has a minimal chance of being signed into law soon but indicates that the issue in question is a top priority for that legislator—or even for the whole party. Progressive legislators in red states will often introduce messaging bills to demonstrate opposition to the kind of policies currently in favor in the statehouse. Rosie’s Law in Texas, which would expand Medicaid coverage to include abortion care, is an example of a messaging bill.

Messaging bills are values statements that demonstrate what progressives stand for. They present a bold, ambitious vision for the future that signals to voters and to progressives what legislators will prioritize should they gain control of their state legislature. For instance, Indivisibles in  Tennessee are advocating for the Women’s Health Equity Bill, which would enshrine and expand the ACA’s contraception coverage requirements. Although this bill is unlikely to pass in Tennessee’s current political environment—with Republican supermajorities in their House and Senate and a Republican Governor—this bill presents a strong progressive blueprint for protecting contraception access in Tennessee, no matter what happens on the federal level.

Just as important, it provides a vehicle to organize around. Members can use such a bill to gauge, gather, and demonstrate support in their caucus for a policy proposal.

More information on messaging bills is available in Indivisible on Offense.

State fights are long term fights

In our experience, most bold, ambitious legislation doesn’t pass the first year it’s introduced. Changing the status quo is never easy or simple. Legislative sessions vary drastically in length but most legislatures are not full-time (only 9 states are!,) and many sessions only last three to six months; it usually takes longer than that to educate legislators and their constituents about why progressive legislation will benefit their community, and for activists to organize around a bill. This is especially true if you’re working on a bill that supports marginalized communities, whose needs and history are often new to legislators who don’t come from that community. For example, California Indivisibles are advocating for reforming their state’s police use of deadly force policy for the second year in a row after a similar effort did not pass last year. That’s exactly the kind of ambitious, game-changing progressive legislation that takes time—and we think it’s totally worth it.

In addition, legislators will often have questions to resolve and need time for deliberation and constituent input. They also might want to see certain changes made to a bill before they will support it. This negotiation is a balancing act between advocates, grassroots activists, and legislators representing different communities—gaining this kind of consensus on a bill often takes more than one session.

Even if you work on a progressive policy that doesn’t ultimately pass this session, you’ll still have some wins: legislators who are more educated on this issue and will look out for it next session; a more organized, vocal grassroots base of support; and lessons learned on your best path forward next year.

Build the case for 2020 and beyond

Proactive policy advocacy is a great way to learn more about legislators’ positions. Are they willing to go out on a limb to fight for what their constituents care about? Or would they rather sit back and leave the tough fights to someone else? As you can probably guess, we’re fans of the former—and that distinction can be helpful when you’re making decisions about who to support in an upcoming election. Messaging bills can help you get this information by giving legislators a concrete policy to support—or refuse to support.

If your legislator supports a proactive messaging bill before it has a chance of passage, it also locks them into a position: by voting in favor of a messaging bill that they know won’t become law, legislators are significantly more likely to vote for the same bill later when there is a real chance of getting it signed into law.

New York State’s 2019 legislative session has been a good example of this. For years, progressive legislation passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly and died in the Republican-controlled Senate, where the Majority Leader refused to even schedule any progressive bills for a vote. In spite of this roadblock, advocates moved forward with these bills—which were effectively messaging bills due to Republican obstructionism. When Indivisibles and other progressive leaders flipped the Senate in 2018, all of these bills were ready to go, and many passed both the Assembly and Senate within the first week of session.

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