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.