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Policy Points: Three Signs of Hope from 2014


By Zach Bernstein

As 2014 reaches its final days, it’s worth looking back at what this year brought us. Not all of it was good – indeed, major priorities for sustainable business leaders stalled in Congress.

But when it came to the states, action on a pair of issues gained even more momentum. And a third which failed in Congress – and suffered a setback from the Supreme Court – still offers hope that a solution can be found. For a year that didn't exactly inspire confidence in policy-making generally, it was actually a better year for sustainable policy than one might think.

1. Minimum wage

While Congress dithered on raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, states and voters decided they were not going to wait. Every state that held a minimum wage ballot initiative – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, as well as a nonbinding measure in Illinois – passed it. Another 10 states, plus Washington, D.C., passed increases through their legislatures, while nine more were in line to have their minimum wage floors increase due to indexed increases.

Despite concerns that minimum wage increases would be bad for business, national, scientific polling from the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and Business for a Fair Minimum Wage (BFMW) released earlier this year found that 61 percent of small business owners supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour (PDF). The reason for this is that increasing pay for workers spurs consumer demand, giving businesses increased revenue – and that’s before taking into account lower employee turnover and higher productivity.

And as evidenced by the range of states taking action on the minimum wage – a good mix of Democratic- and Republican-leaning states – this issue is far less partisan than Congress makes it out to be. Expect the states to keep moving forward with more victories like these in the months ahead.

2. Good workplace

Two pieces of federal legislation dealing with paid leave stalled in Congress this year. One was the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), which would have provided paid time off to recover from pregnancy or spend time with an adopted child, or to care for a family member with a serious medical condition. Work also continued on the Healthy Families Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), which would have given employees one hour of paid time off for every 30 hours worked.

Again, activities at the state and local level saw more success. All four ballot initiatives on paid leave passed – a statewide initiative in Massachusetts (which became the third state to require paid leave), and citywide initiatives in Trenton and Montclair, N.J.; and Oakland, Calif. These followed the passage of eight other laws earlier this year, including a statewide law in California.

As with the minimum wage, paid leave benefits businesses, leading to more productive employees who are less likely to seek jobs elsewhere. And, while 2014 was a good year for making that case – especially having forward-thinking business leaders join in – more work is needed for this narrative to prevail. Again, paralleling the minimum wage, though, the country appears to be far ahead of its representatives on paid leave.

3. Campaign finance reform

Here, the news was decidedly more mixed. On the one hand, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, eliminating the aggregate limits on campaign contributions. So, while contributions to individual candidates, committees or PACs are still capped, donors can now contribute the legal maximum to as many of them as they wish. Previously, election law limited how much donors could contribute in total.

However, the Senate also held a historic vote on a new amendment to the United States Constitution which would have overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. While it failed to meet the 67-vote threshold needed to hold the vote, more than half of the Senate showed support for strong campaign finance regulations – something most Americans, and most small business owners (PDF), support.

Most small businesses don’t have the resources, or the desire, to spend huge sums of money on political campaigns. Those businesses that do often represent legacy industries with different policy opinions and desires than most Americans, or even American companies. Their contributions skew American policymaking – and in the process, contribute heavily to public disaffection with the political process.

The idea that businesses want this ability to spend without limits on elections might make for a good soundbite, but as with perceived opposition to paid leave and increasing the minimum wage, it just isn’t true. Once more, Congress lags behind – but not by much.

So, 2014 may not have been the best year for sustainable policy, but as these issues show, there could be more victories to come. Especially if sustainably-minded business leaders make their voices heard and build on the gains we’ve made.

Image (cropped): Flickr/danmoyle

Zach Bernstein is the Manager of Research and Social Media for the American Sustainable Business Council. Policy Points is produced by the American Sustainable Business Council. The editor is Richard Eidlin, Vice President – Public Policy and Business Engagement.

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The <a href="http://asbcouncil.org">American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC)</a> is a network of companies and business associations. Its column, Policy Points, identifies public policies where a business voice, grounded in principles of innovation, fairness and environmental stewardship, can make an essential difference in the advocacy process. The goal is to arm readers with information and specific actions to take. As business leaders, we can and must support policy change to help make the economy more green and sustainable. The column editor is Richard Eidlin, ASBC's Vice President - Public Policy and Business Engagement.

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