Amazing Day at the State House: Welfare Reform

safetynet.jpgYesterday, at the State House, a determined and united group of progressive legislators and advocates, bolstered by thousands of petitions, letters, post cards and calls from constituents, made a disastrous welfare reform bill much better than it started out.

And you were a part of that remarkable effort.

We still have some substantial work to do – in conference committee – but many are committed to continuing the fight.

Dozens of legislators signed on to Amendment #74 – designed to address key bad provisions.

Advocates remained in the building from early morning until debate concluded after 9 pm – providing key input and even draft language.

Many legislators made impassioned speeches on the floor of the house – calling out Republicans for their mean-spiritedness.

A core group spent the day negotiating with leadership – and winning many of the changes we wanted.

We have a long way to go yet as a Progressive movement – and yesterday we were on defense with what is still a disappointing welfare bill.  But we are also a long way – in spirit, determination and unity – from the defeat on revenue.

It’s time to build on this momentum and go on offense – with minimum wage, earned sick time, single payor health care, free secondary education – and yes, eventually, new revenue.  When I suggested that we would eventually be there to “An Act to Invest” co-sponsor Representative Jim O’Day, he smiled and gave me (us) the thumbs up.

What Contributed to this Success? 


The story really begins with the rushed passage of a very bad welfare bill in the Senate in June.  At that time, a coalition of advocates was caught off guard by intentional shenanigans on the part of Senate leadership.  

But, over the course of the summer, the group coalesced - and vowed to be ready for the House debate.

More than 15 groups met first bi-weekly and then weekly to discuss and implement strategy.  Our intrepid lawyers, Deborah Harris of Mass Law Reform Institute and Naomi Meyer of Greater Boston Legal Services worked with Representatives Kay Khan and Tom Conroy to craft an alternative bill.  Teams of people from organizations as diverse as Crittenton Women's Union, ABCD, Homes for Families, MIRA, CSJ and Neighbor to Neighbor met with more than 50 legislators.  We were led by the always steady and focused Rebekah Gewirtz of NASW.  We were advised by our able consultants Charles Glick and his myriad of fresh-faced interns.  A very extensive grassroots effort was launched by Progressive Mass working hand-in-hand with Rosie's Place and others.

Several qualities defined our coalition throughout. We:

  • Relied on the expertise of our lawyers
  • Trusted each other and the unique talents and connections we each brought
  • Focused our efforts - picking a few priorities and sticking with them
  • Stuck together - and operated in an open, democratic caring way. Modeling the kind of community we advocate for
  • Constantly evaluated our progress - and remained constantly willing to switch up our strategy when something better was identified
  • Left egos at the door - and made everything about winning important victories for low income people
We were disappointed when the Reps we were working with ultimately didn't share what they submitted to leadership but we knew what we wanted - and continued to lobby.

The GOTV surprise

When the bill was finally released from Ways and Means - again in a rush over the GOTV weekend before the election - it was worse than we thought but, true to form, we focused quickly, identified our priorities and went back to work.  We:
  • Secured a lead sponsor for a "priorities amendment" and began lobbying as soon as the bill was released
  • Worked with Reps interested in filing amendments
  • Prepared fact sheets and talking points for everyone to use
  • Phone banked thousands of supporters - getting them to call their legislator in an unprecedented grassroots effort on behalf of the poor
  • Worked closely with a group of non-leadership progressives to bolster their preparation, their determination and their unity.

Some leaders emerged

These are the unsung heroes of Wednesday and include some very new and determined freshmen - Marjorie Decker, Jay Livingstone, Dave Rogers, Mary Keefe, Ken Gordon, Dan Cullinane - who were joined by some more seasoned but not cynical colleagues - Carl Sciortino, Jonathan Hecht, Denise Andrews, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Jim O'Day, Sean Garballey, Antonio Cabral - and perhaps others.
A special debt of gratitude is owed to Mayor Tom Menino who lobbied hard for our changes.

The final debate begins

Wednesday's debate began after 2 pm and the advocates remained present, available, answering questions, offering suggestions to legislators hard at work to make things better.
Just after 9:30 pm, the "technical fix" that addressed our issues was passed - and the bill was engrossed.

And now?

We don't have a perfect bill -- perhaps we shouldn't have a bill at all.  But we do have a much better bill and many progressives inside the building - and outside - have a renewed energy and confidence for our work and the possibility of collaboration.
Stay tuned.  And thank you to everyone who called, texted, emailed, tweeted their legislator.
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