PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday July 18th, 2016, 2:47pm

Report: Legislative Advances, Setbacks For Progressives During 2016 Statehouse Sessions

A new report from the progressive State Innovation Exchange details some of the best and worst policies from this year's state legislative sessions.

Now that statehouses nationwide have wrapped up their regular legislative sessions for 2016, a new report recaps the high and low points from a progressive perspective and "underscores the consequences of conservatives possessing disproportionate power in the states."

The 2016 End-of-Session Legislative Report comes from the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a group working with state legislators to advance progressive policies across the country.

Republicans, according to SiX, control nearly 70 percent of state legislative chambers and have full control of the legislature and governor's office in 23 states. Democrats have full legislative control in seven states. As for state governors, 31 are Republicans, including Bruce Rauner in Illinois, 18 are Democrats and one is an Independent.

SiX's report examines legislative activity in all 50 states on nine key policy areas, including climate change, criminal justice and policing, economics, education, health, immigration, LGBTQ equality, reproductive rights and voting and elections.

"With this pervasive control at the state level, conservative legislators continued their full-scale assault on America's middle class, combined with efforts to roll back progress on everything from criminal justice reform and voting rights to LGBTQ equality and women's health," SiX's report reads. "At the same time - and as our report details - progressive legislators fought back with bills aimed at ensuring equal pay for women, expanding paid sick leave, increasing the minimum wage, investing in clean energy and modernizing our election systems."

Nick Rathod is the executive director at SiX, which was formed in an effort to counter the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that crafts and pushes conservative, corporate-friendly state legislation.

"As partisan gridlock in Washington keeps Congress at a standstill, and we remain in limbo with a deadlocked Supreme Court, the decisions made at the state level will be the ones that define our future," Rathod said in a statement. "With a long-term vision of building progressive power in the states, SiX is issuing not only a report but a call to action: this November, the American people should take a look at how these issues are playing out locally and make choices down the ballot that truly reflect their values."

On the issue of voting and elections, conservatives "proposed, passed or carried over" 70 restrictive voting laws in 28 states, with the goal of implementing new photo ID requirements, reducing early voting and abolishing same-day registration.

But some states moved to eliminate voting barriers.

Automatic voter registration proposals, for example, were enacted in Vermont and West Virginia.

The Illinois legislature got a nod for passing similar legislation to establish automatic voter registration in the state. The bill, SB 250, is awaiting action from the governor.

As for other issues, the report recognizes the Illinois General Assembly for passing a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and a $15 minimum wage bill covering home health care workers, both of which are pending on the governor's desk.

Regarding the issue of education, the report slammed Illinois over the yearlong budget impasse and the negative impact it has had on the state's higher education system.

"Conservatives continued to slash K-12 and higher education budgets - in Illinois, Kentucky, Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Kansas, among others," the report states. "Illinois is the most egregious case, where the governor refuses to pass a budget and continues to demand drastic cuts to state colleges. A recent New York Times op-ed went so far as to say that 'higher education in Illinois is dying.' The stopgap bill signed by the governor funds schools enough to keep them open through the summer, but it still amounts to a 70 percent funding cut for most schools."

Progressive lawmakers, meanwhile, sought to advance over 60 bills with protections for LGBTQ people in more than 20 states. Conservatives, on the other hand, proposed more than 150 anti-LGBTQ bills in some 30 states, with North Carolina's restrictive transgender bathroom policy being among the most controversial measures adopted.

North Carolina's bathroom law, which came in response to LGBTQ protections passed in Charlotte, is part of a "dangerous" state trend this year of conservative preemption of local control, according to SiX.

"[C]onservatives in state capitols went to great lengths to block localities from making their own policy decisions," the report reads, noting that some local laws involving wages and benefits were also among those successfully preempted by Republicans. "This hypocritical effort is in direct opposition to the supposed conservative principles of local control and resistance to so-called 'big government.'"

Conservatives and progressives also battled over equal pay in statehouses across the country.

Legislation to help close the gender pay gap was introduced in 29 states, though most of the measures were blocked by Republicans. Equal pay reforms were, however, enacted in Delaware, Maryland, Nebraska and Utah.

Republicans also thwarted paid sick leave legislation in 19 states -- with Vermont being the exception as it became the fifth state to require paid sick time.

"By highlighting some of this year's most important state-level advances, as well as the most devastating setbacks, SiX hopes to emphasize the danger of conservatives having such disproportionate legislative power in the states," Rathod said. "It's an advantage the corporate-backed right has been quietly investing in for decades, and with so much at stake for working families - good schools for our kids, access to affordable health care and the ability to earn a decent living - it's time for the American people to take back their democracy."

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