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Democratic lawmakers in at least 30 U.S. states are either unveiling or highlighting legislation this week aimed at President Trump's working-class voters, in a nationwide coordinated rebuttal to the agenda the president will outline in his first joint address to Congress on Feb. 28.
It’s an attempt to form the legislative spine of a state-level resistance to Trump’s policies, Nick Rathod, executive director of State Innovation Exchange Action, which is overseeing the initiative, told USA TODAY.
The timing creates a juxtaposition between Democratic economic security prescriptions for workers, such as raising the minimum wage and paid family leave, and Trump tax reform and federal budget policies that, Democrats say, are at odds with his populist campaign oath to prioritize “forgotten” Americans from the factory floors of the Rust Belt to the sawmills of the Mountain West.
“If you work hard and play by the rules in this country, you should be paid enough to live on, to care for your family, and to retire securely,” Rathod said in an interview previewing the legislative “Week of Action” that will spotlight more than 130 bills in states from Oklahoma to Alaska.
Trump’s campaign promises stand “in stark contrast to the corporate, billionaire-driven agenda” now emerging, he said. SiX Action, a nonprofit trying to help Democrats regain power at the state level, marshaled 40 different left-leaning organizations to help coordinate the effort. It includes bill introduction ceremonies to draw media attention even in states where the legislative packages face an uphill battle because Republicans control both chambers.
State lawmakers are offering provisions that, according to polls, enjoy broad public support to also include overtime pay, paid family leave requirements and equal pay for women.
During his campaign, Trump prioritized a message of economic populism, including reopening coal mines and steel mills and advancing a major infrastructure spending bill. His first month in office has been dominated by divisive cultural issues — such as a travel ban, expedited deportations and the repeal of a transgender bathroom executive order — rather than the issues that matter most to struggling working-class voters, a number of whom also supported former President Barack Obama.
The White House did not respond to two requests for an outline of pro-worker policies. Trump has made clear his approach is heavy on eliminating federal regulations and he is reportedly planning to turn back Obama-era initiatives on carbon emissions from power plants, coal mining on federal land and government authority over bodies of water. The Heritage Foundation is providing inspiration for Trump policies. Salim Furth, a Heritage research fellow, said Republicans may target corporate tax reform to encourage immediate job creation through "expensing," or the earmarking of new projects. "Corporate taxes are where the current inefficiencies are," he said.
That stands in contrast to Democratic plans, said Colorado Rep. Faith Winter, who is sponsoring a paid family leave package. “We’re trying to draw a contrast that we’re concerned with your family and with Coloradans daily lives,” said Winter, who represents a suburb north of Denver.
It’s also an acknowledgement by national and local Democrats that the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt needs to more aggressively promote its answers to economic anxiety in flyover America if it wants to reclaim seats in state legislatures and Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. At a Saturday Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlanta, FDR was omnipresent. Navy veteran Jeff Sumner waved a sepia-tinted picture of the 32nd president and called him someone who "was willing to fight" for the middle class and social safety net programs.
“They (voters) felt forgotten maybe because the spotlight was around civil rights issues,” said Winter, recounting her experiences door knocking. “A lot of them felt they were one medical crisis or car break down from poverty. They felt like they were just hanging on and no one realized they still needed help,” she said.
Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers in just six states, their lowest since the Civil War, while Republicans have 25. In fact, Democrats no longer control a single chamber in the entire South.
Focused on spending cuts
Trump has already hinted his budget will be heavy on federal spending cuts. And based on his campaign blueprint, Trump's tax plan is likely to be weighted toward the wealthy. Half of the benefits went to the top 1% of earners, revenue the government will need to offset, which raises the specter of cuts to safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security that Trump vowed to protect.
“It’s not like you can tweak these policies and change the fact that they damage working people. That damage is ingrained in the basic structure of these ideas,” said Jacob Leibenluft, a senior adviser at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some of the effects include:
• In the first year after repealing Obamacare, 18 million people would lose insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office, as 7 million families would lose tax credits averaging about $5,000 a year. Of those expected to lose coverage, 82% are working families, CBPP estimates.
• Trump’s already done a lot through executive order, including one of his first taking aim at the so-called fiduciary rule that protects Americans saving for retirement from self-dealing financial advisers as well as one disregarding new overtime protections, a move that is estimated to cut the wages of an estimated 4.2 million workers who make less than $50,000 a year by $12 billion over 10 years, according a Center for American Progress report based on Department of Labor figures.
• An executive order aiming to roll back capital requirements for Wall Street could return more than $100 billion to wealthy investors.
Over the past decade Republicans have gained at the state level with a heavy assist from outside Republican spending groups like the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been coordinating policy and boosting GOP candidates from county commissioner to governor. That allowed the GOP to control much of the redistricting process around the 2010 Census.
SiX is trying to become the liberal answer to ALEC. With the U.S. Congress and White House also in Republican hands, it’s part of a Democratic cultural shift to turn the reins of power back to the states.
"It’s important for us to come together across state lines to fight for families," said David Chiu, an assemblyman in California, which is a model for other states. California already has equal pay, sick days and family leave laws and is increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021. It's "leading economic growth of the country while ensuring that workers and their families are treated with the dignity and fairness they deserve," said Chiu.
A 2016 Lake Research Partners poll found nearly 8 in 10 likely voters say it’s important for elected officials to guarantee access to paid family and medical leave, the same ratio from a 2015 New York Times survey. More striking, a 2015 Public Policy Polling survey found taxes are no longer a third rail issue for Southern white voters. Just 9% felt taxes were too high, while the biggest concern was the influence of the wealthy and large corporations.
Provisions including increasing the minimum wage are “wildly popular in North Carolina. We’ve just got to keep talking about it,” said Harrison. “Just presenting an alternative will remind them there’s a better way to do this,” she said.
Competing with ALEC
Yet Democrats are also years behind their Republican counterparts who’ve successfully coordinated a state-level strategy to enact laws including voter ID requirements, income-tax reductions and anti-union “right-to-work” laws.
For instance, since Florida approved “Stand Your Ground” gun legislation in 2005, more than 24 more states have adopted similar laws with the help of the National Rifle Association and ALEC, which provided legislative templates and media strategy. “The left has really never had anything like that until now,” said Rathod.
ALEC took in about $9 million in 2015, while SiX’s budget is about a quarter of that. “We’re starting to chip away and we need to supercharge that with resources,” he said.