Winning on Student Loan Reform … From CT to MT

Across the country, student loan borrowers and their allies have been organizing to make college more affordable and push for state-level reforms that address the mountain of student debt that’s weighing down students and families. And they’re winning… all the way from Connecticut to Montana.

In Connecticut, where the 2015 legislative session ended at midnight on June 3rd, Alliance affiliate Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) co-convened and provided staff support for the Higher Ed, Not Debt – CT coalition, a coalition of community and labor allies that formed last fall and championed affordable higher ed and student loan reforms in the legislature this year.

CCAG’s work with the coalition – including releasing the Connecticut version of the Alliance’s A Mountain of Debt report last fall, mobilizing its grassroots membership through public events and calls to action, and driving under-the-dome engagement at the legislature – helped push some breakthrough wins on student loans before the session gaveled out.

The Alliance congratulates the Higher Ed, Not Debt – CT coalition for these exciting wins, including:

Passing a Student Loan Bill of Rights that gives borrowers somewhere to turn for help and gives the banking commissioner the authority to investigate and take action against bad-acting loan servicers. This bill of rights creates a dedicated student loan ombudsman position in the state Banking Department to review and act on borrower complaints, to compile and publicize complaint data, and to educate borrowers and the public about student loan issues. It establishes licensure requirements and standards of conduct for student loan servicers. And it authorizes the banking commissioner to conduct investigations and examinations and take enforcement action against servicers who violate licensing provisions.

Passing in-state tuition for DREAMERS – immigrant students who attend high school in Connecticut but, despite having residency in the state, have been barred from paying in-state tuition because of immigration status. With out-of-state tuition often coming in at triple in-state rates, this made the costs of higher education prohibitive for many. Passing in-state tuition is an important step toward justice and educational opportunity for immigrant students.

Passing a landmark student loan refinancing bill. This bill allows the Connecticut Higher Education Supplemental Loan Authority (CHESLA) to refinance qualifying student loans. Crucially, the bill gives CHESLA the authority to refinance private student loans (which often come with punitive interest rates) into public CHESLA loans with lower rates and better protections. This bill also reforms CHESLA’s lending practices to ensure that it provides more aid to low-income students who have the greatest financial need.

This progress in Connecticut is exciting. So is the news from Montana, where the Montana Organizing Project (MOP) has been collecting stories and organizing around student debt issues, too (MOP released the Montana edition of A Mountain of Debt last fall). This year, MOP took on a longshot fight in the legislature to roll back the criminalization of student debt – and won!

The criminalization of student debt has been a troubling – and growing – trend nationwide. Going into this year, 22 states (including Montana) had laws on the books that allow the state to revoke a state-issued professional license (like a nursing license) if a borrower defaults on student loans.

But Montana went even further: under a statute passed in 1997, the state could suspend a driver’s license indefinitely if a borrower failed to pay back student loans.

In a sprawling state like Montana where public transportation infrastructure is poor and driving is a practical necessity to get to work, members of the Montana Organizing Project concluded this law was just plain kicking people when they’re down… so they kicked into action to do something about it.

MOP engaged the state Department of Justice around the issue, analyzed the Montana Code to develop a fix, and worked to build support both inside and outside the legislature to reverse this punitive law. The resulting bill, HB 363, passed the Montana House and Senate with bi-partisan support and was signed into law by Montana Governor Steve Bullock – a promising victory for efforts to roll back the criminalization of student debt.

Hats off to the teams in Connecticut and Montana for winning these fights, and putting forward models that can inspire action and catalyze new campaigns for affordable higher education and student loan reform across the country.

LeeAnn Hall: Our Work Together is More Important Than Ever

Dear Friends,

I join all of you in a sense of disappointment and outrage as I consider the changed composition of Congress after yesterday’s elections. That outrage has ignited in me a renewed determination, stronger than ever, that we must continue our fight in communities, in cities and in states where we are making a difference.

The new congressional majority has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is bringing health coverage to millions of people. They have ignored demands to raise the minimum wage, to protect voting rights, and to pass fair immigration reform.

We must keep our eyes on justice, and continue our action in the places where it matters, where it will build and grow, fired by the fierce love in our hearts. Your work might seem like a small step on any given day, but each step is necessary in the long march toward change.

Every door-knock, every phone call, every personal contact is helping build an important and engaged supporter base for the future.

You all worked hard and you are all making a difference – that was the message we heard loud and clear in the many progressive victories we saw across the country yesterday. Our efforts are at the heart of these victories, and they are many. Here are just a few:

Minimum wage increases passed in Arkansas, South Dakota, Alabama, and Nebraska. Illinois and several localities in Wisconsin passed non-binding minimum wage increases. San Francisco voters matched Seattle’s $15 minimum wage success.
Earned sick time won in Oakland, California, Trenton and Montclair, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
Same-day voter registration was preserved in Montana.
Restrictions to abortion rights were defeated in two out of the three state ballot measures.
Gun control in Washington passed, closing the gun show loophole and defeating the NRA alternative proposition.
Bail reform moved forward as New Jersey passed a measure that helps low income people with non-violent crimes get out of jail.
• California reduced penalties for non-violent offenses.
Marijuana legalization passed in Alaska, Washington D.C. and Oregon
Voters in Oregon saw a near progressive sweep, passing an amendment protecting against sex discrimination, defeating the Top Two Primary, and electing pro-small business, pro-working families, and pro-women leaders to the Oregon Senate and House.

Now, our work together takes on even more significance and more urgency.

Together, we will be vigilant of those who threaten to take away the progress we have built.

Together, we will continue to raise the radical ideas that become tomorrow’s common sense.

Together we will push forward, creating a just society for all.


LeeAnn Hall
Executive Director
Alliance for a Just Society

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Welcome to the Alliance’s “Power from the Roots Up” Conference

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 3.30.52 PM** Letter from the Executive Director **

Welcome to the Alliance’s annual conference, “Power from the Roots Up”!

In this moment, we are witnessing intense gridlock in D.C. The once-promising dream of comprehensive immigration reform has turned into a political nightmare. Congress refuses to allow former students to refinance one of the great scourges of family debt out there, student loans. And, despite significant momentum by state and local governments around the country — including the recent passage of a $15 minimum wage here in Seattle — Congress is still unable to increase a federal minimum wage that has remained stagnant since 2009.

However, we have much to celebrate.

Community organizations around the country are running successful campaigns at the local level, making change one policy at a time. They are racking up big wins with innovative campaigns, ensuring that, when national opportunities arise, we have built power and are poised to strike.

A few examples that provide an inspiring contrast to the morass in D.C.: Read more

Consent to Search: Beyond Cell Blocks Webinar Series Continues

consent to searchIn 2010, after a lengthy fight, Colorado passed a state law that required police officers to inform people of their constitutional right to refuse a search of their person and/or property. The goal of the law was to reduce traffic stops, searches and intimidation stemming from from discrimination.

Law enforcement officers at the time said the legislation threatened their ability to do their jobs. Supporters of the law said it would force police to focus on probable cause and not waste resources on fishing expedition-type searches. The debate drew sharp focus Constitutional protection from unlawful search and seizure and the right to refuse. Read more

No More Delays, Two Million is Too Many

Krista brighter 2 millionDelaying defense is one of the oldest tactics of war. It’s as much a psychological one as it is strategic. The goal is to wear down the opposition until they become weak, hungry or distracted. Our immigrant rights movement hasn’t been immune to it.

Now there is no longer time for delay: two million deportations is a clear message and a rallying cry that we cannot and will not be ignored.

The immigrant reform movement built great power during the electoral battle of 2012, vast armies of strong, fearless leaders were created as we went door-to-door registering people to vote. Read more

The Affordable Care Act and Women: A Nation Cycling Between Celebration and Obstruction

What Women Won with the ACA: What the Nation Should Celebrate

What the nation has now, under Obamacare, is coverage for the many costs of being a woman—medically speaking:

  • Insurance companies must now charge the same price to cover men and women.
  • No pre-existing conditions clauses will be allowed.
  • Maternity care is covered; upending an insurance market where only 12 percent of the private plans actually covered maternity care before 2013.
  • There are no more co-payments on birth control.
  • Mental health screenings are now covered. For women over the age of 40, mammograms are now covered every two years.
  • Increasing funding and support to community health centers
  • Finally, counseling and services for survivors of domestic violence are now covered.affordable-care-act

Previously, state-by-state coverage allowed employer-based coverage to decide whether premiums would be higher, whether preventive services or even family planning services would be covered by an insurance plan. For women on Medicaid, prenatal and maternity services were covered if a doctor was willing to accept Medicaid.

In theory, the ACA would fully do away with those disparities. The Medicaid option would become normalized and strengthened. Doctors could not walk away from providing medical services just because they didn’t want to accept Medicaid reimbursements. In practice this will only occur if insurance plans receive federal dollars or participate in health exchanges.

As of September 2010, pre-existing conditions were no longer allowed to bar a person from receiving health insurance. Despite the law, insurance companies, bided their time as the court case filtered its way up to the Supreme Court. And finally, following news coverage in 2010 of breast cancer survivors being denied coverage and being subjected to lifetime limits in coverage forcing insurance companies to quickly their practices.

It didn’t hurt to have the Supreme Court uphold those provisions in the law.

Furthermore, in America maternity care has become one procedural charge after another, often leading a new mother to pay upwards of $10,000 for a conventional delivery, $15,000 for a C-section. Ensuring that birth doesn’t bankrupt a new mother was a major imperative in crafting healthcare reform. (NYTimes)

“Only in the United States is pregnancy generally billed item by item, a practice that has spiraled in the past decade, doctors say. No item is too small. Charges that 20 years ago were lumped together and covered under the general hospital fee are now broken out, leading to more bills and inflated costs. There are separate fees for the delivery room, the birthing tub and each night in a semiprivate hospital room, typically thousands of dollars. Even removing the placenta can be coded as a separate charge. (NYTimes)

In states like Louisiana 70 percent of the births are paid for through Medicaid: in Texas, 56 percent. Neither state, among the 25 states refusing the program, will take responsibility by participating in Medicaid expansion—leaving the onus for covering uninsured women to the federal government. (nearly a fourth of all women ages 0-64 in both states are currently uninsured.)

Then there’s birth control. While it may not have been doing away with the Hyde Amendment, the ACA did give women more control over their reproductive choices at significant levels. The law did away with co-pays on contraceptives. It made family planning a requirement of every insurance plan on the market, even employer-based coverage has to include this provision.

But as we have seen with the refusal of states to participate in expanded Medicaid programs, private companies that this provision is a violation of their First Amendment Rights. Auto parts manufacturers, religious social service agencies, hospitals and others are fighting this provision; some on the basis of religious beliefs; others on the belief that employers should be able to make reproductive choices for their employees.

And so the noise over who controls women’s bodies continues, but the contraceptives still come without a co-pay.

What is more enlightened in the ACA is the emphasis on community health clinics. 40 percent of community health centers, even in geographic areas where the number of Limited English Speakers are few have, on average, 30 percent of their clientele needing bi-lingual services. What that means is longer visit times and the need for culturally competent care to be provided throughout the community health networks. And most of these clinics have raised the bar on medical services, often moving populations not used to preventive medical practice into longer-term, less expensive care.

The opportunity for cultural competence in medicine to become more and more the practice in the national funding regime warrants a celebration all on its own.


The Kerfuffle Causing Obstructionists

Americans waited with trepidation as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act last year. Opponents of the law were banking their first salvo against health reform on a strike down from the court. One graphic told the story that millions of proponents saw to be true—( Image to the right)that the ACA would in fact transform healthcare for millions of women seemingly overnight; in fact, all women receiving preventive care, maternity care, family planning and preexisting conditions.177173_10151009492522103_397269126_o

“The Affordable Care Act helps stop health problems before they start. These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.(Gothamist)

In many ways the ACA changed the focus of healthcare from treatment to prevention.

Yet, with conservatives attempting to dismantle the comprehensive nature of these historic changes, the nation, it would seem, needs a constant reminder of how serious the health costs for women have become, and why it is more important than ever to remain committed to health reform. More importantly, remaining focused on reducing health disparities in our health systems that have defined for our country whose health is or is not valued.

The real fight it turns out wasn’t the lawsuit against the ACA; it would be the piecemeal policy-effect of a conservative House of Representatives, the abject reluctance of conservative governors and state legislatures, and a seeming unwillingness of ACA framers to stand by their policy victory. The Court ruling that states were not required to participate in the federal Medicaid expansion was a bigger blow to the legislation than many people realized.

Without a public option, Medicaid expansion would represent the only incentive for insurance companies to enter the affordable coverage markets (exchanges). The state of women’s heath, while certainly on firmer ground in terms of receiving coverage, will be better than it has ever been — but only if coverage options exist.

It is the uninsured population that the Affordable Care Act was intending to find coverage after all and while the fight to keep the law intact will certainly continue, Americans need to reflect on the opportunities created by the legislation.

The legislation passed both houses and was signed into law by the President; the Supreme Court only struck down one of the provisions. Even with that setback some of the nation’s most conservative governors agreed to expand Medicaid coverage to their uninsured residents. What is disheartening is the Obama Administration’s repeated concessions on implementing the law.  For example, the announcement that there would be a delay in implementing provisions to require employers to offer health plans to their employees will have huge ramifications for uninsured Americans. We still have 25 states that are either refusing to provide expanded Medicaid coverage for their uninsured populations or leaning against it — some as mentioned above won’t even take responsibility to run their own health exchanges.

The out-and-out rejection on political and ideological lines isn’t without costs. Politically, Americans can quickly turn their disenchantment on the legislation itself. Should the reforms not succeed for everyone, the chances are that the malaise will spread. The only people caught in the fray are the same ones the law was intended to support: the uninsured, 20% of whom are women ages 19-64.

We cannot remind ourselves often enough that the Affordable Care Act did more to even the gender playing field than any other piece of healthcare legislation. Unfortunately, the nation cannot measure those changes; yet.

What we can anticipate is a renewed fight for the right to health care.

The Alliance will continue to move forward to expand Medicaid in as many states as possible, we will continue to identify and remove racial and gender disparities in healthcare provision and we will continue pushing policies that innovate and strengthen coverage for all Americans.


The Alliance Hosts Our First National Conference in Baltimore and DC

A week ago, to the day, the Alliance for A Just Society hosted our 2013 Summer Conference with all our national affiliates (#Justice2013). There was no better way to kick it off than taking close to 200 participants into Washington DC and hosting three separate actions on the Hill.

As of this year, we are proud to note the following states affiliated with the Alliance for a Just Society and Main Street Alliance: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Maine, Florida, Colorado and Connecticut.


State affiliate.Alliance and MainStreet

The morning of July 18 began with The Main Street Alliance hosting a forum on “Too Big To Fail”—addressing the policy conundrum where favors are given to Big Banks at the expense of the common good. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), FDIC Vice Chairman Thomas Hoenig, economist Simon Johnson, and a panel of small business owners and policy experts each spoke of the need for renewed attention to megabank limits in order to stabilize the financial system and support the Main Street economy. Read more

The Alliance Takes DC: #justice2013 National Conference Ignites

Bringing together friends and affiliates from around the country, the first national conference kicked off with three separate actions in Washington DC. #justice2013. 150 people from more than 10 states engaged Senators and Representatives on a message of equality and inclusion on issues as diverse as brewing up the big banks, healthcare and keeping families united with comprehensive immigration reform– it seemed more than a typical day at the Alliance.

The following updates will show just how inspiring it is to work with such a diverse, dedicated coalition of people united in one mission of a more just, a more fair, a more compassionate society.

New Bottom Line’s 16-Month Campaign Takes Giant Step Forward To Removing:

The biggest roadblock to our country’s economic recovery”


Re-Posted with permission from The New Bottom Line

Since early 2012, New Bottom Line has driven the campaign to get President Obama to dump Ed DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Today, the organization celebrated the news that the president finally made a nomination for the permanent director of FHFA.  New Bottom Line also urges Congressman Mel Watt to support principal reduction at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in his new position, as well as supporting the vital role they play in ensuring homeownership and rental housing opportunities for all communities. Read more