‘We want Pa. to thrive, not just survive,’ progressive coalition says as it rolls out its legislative agenda

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A coalition of progressive advocacy groups, spanning a myriad of constituencies and the state, rolled out a massive legislative agenda Tuesday that calls for a higher minimum wage; more money for public education; paid family leave, and other initiatives that they say will allow “all Pennsylvanians to thrive, not just survive.”

The roll-out, coordinated by the advocacy group We the People Pennsylvania, pulled roughly 100 advocates into a 45-minute Zoom conference on Tuesday afternoon. Some of the proposals are already working their way through the legislative process, others are awaiting patrons in the General Assembly.

Economic justice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic figured prominently in the agenda. Through midday Tuesday, the state Health Department had confirmed 109,384 cases in all 67 counties, with 7,146 confirmed fatalities. The shutdown prompted widespread job losses. Through July 18, 1.9 million people had filed for unemployment compensation, state data showed.

“There will be no real recovery from economic distress unless it is a just recovery,” said Jeff Garis, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think tank in Harrisburg.

Leigh Owens, an organizer with SEIU, which represents tens of thousands of unionized employees said it was critical for policymakers to ensure that frontline workers, especially Black and brown workers, receive the protective equipment that they need to stay safe on the job during the pandemic — and beyond.

“We need to ensure that every worker has paid leave, and a $15-hour minimum wage,” that’s tied to inflation, he said, also calling for the end of the tipped wage, as well as a ban on the preemption of local minimum wage laws.

Gov. Tom Wolf and his Democratic allies in the General Assembly have spent the last six years trying to raise the state’s current minimum, which has stood at $7.25 an hour since 2006. Last year, the state Senate approved a bill hiking the wage to $9.50 an hour by 2022. But the bill never received a vote in the state House.

Erin Kramer, of the advocacy group One Pa., handled the education section of the agenda, calling for full desegregation of the state’s 500 school districts, investments in career and technical education, and affordable tuition at Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities. The “Pa. Promise” bill, backed by legislative Democrats, would provide tuition grants to low- to moderate-income families.

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Other tenets of the agenda call for a state-paid public option for health insurance; rental and mortgage assistance and a further extension of an existing ban on evictions and foreclosures; a “fair share” tax that would target wealthier Pennsylvanians, and further police reforms, including removing police officers from school buildings and rededicating resources spent on them.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May “reminds us what Black and brown people know in their bones: that police violence is endemic, and affects the lives of Black and brown people,” said Patty Torres, of the immigrants’ rights group Make the Road Pa.

The sprawling legislative package has so far attracted the endorsement of more than 100 lawmakers in the state House and Senate, said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center.

“We want to move this good legislation through the halls of Harrisburg,” the call’s organizer, Kadida Kenner, said.