A Look Back

A Look Back



Several examples from history illustrate how an innovative idea from a state can sweep the nation.

By Tricia Simmons

The national debate on health insurance has been in the state/federal spotlight the last few years. It’s clear that the federal law incorporated many elements developed first in states. But it’s far from the first time a state innovation became a national model. Often, a policy  idea that germinates in a state, sweeps the country and ends up in Congress. Here are just a few examples from the past.

Women’s Right to Vote

Women’s suffrage was born in the Wild West. 

“Giving women the right to vote,” says Wyoming Representative Rosie Berger (R), “was key to attracting people to the sparsely populated Western territories, allowing them to expand quicker in their quest for statehood.”

In true pioneer fashion, the Wyoming Territory was first in granting women the right to vote in 1869. From there the movement caught fire, spreading to Utah in 1870, Washington in 1883 (repealed four years later but reinstated in 1910), Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896. 

When Congress threatened to deny statehood to Wyoming if it didn’t rescind women’s right to vote, the territorial government sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., stating it would rather “remain out of the Union 100 years than join without women’s suffrage.” 

Women took their right seriously. Not satisfied with only men to vote for, women starting running for office—and winning. Colorado was the first to elect women to the state house. Three won office in 1894. Utah elected two in 1897. Then Idaho elected three in 1899. In 1916, Montana elected the first female representative to Congress. But it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified and women in all states were welcomed at the polls. Today, women account for roughly 24 percent of state legislators nationally.

Sales Tax

This might not rank as a popular innovation with the public—or some lawmakers—but the modern general sales tax was another state innovation borne from a need.

Mississippi adopted it first, in 1930. In the midst of the Great Depression, the state was looking for ways to help pay for a $13 million deficit, about $220 million in today’s dollars. Mississippi charged consumers 2 percent on their purchases, leading the way to becoming one of the primary sources of revenue for a majority of states. 

Twenty-four states ran with the idea during the Depression years. Vermont, in 1969, was the latest to enact a sales tax. Today, 45 states have a state sales tax, and in 2012, they collected $242 billion from it. The five states that don’t impose  a state sales tax are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon. 
States that do are appealing to Congress to enact the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow them to collect the sales taxes owed to them from remote sales. The bill has passed the U.S. Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Welfare and Work

In 1898, the New York Legislature passed a bill to provide for needy women and their children. But this early version of “welfare” didn’t become law because the governor at the time, Frank Black, refused to sign it.

It wasn’t until 1911—13 years later—that Illinois became the first state to allow county governments to give grants to widowed mothers with dependent children. Within eight years, 39 states had passed similar legislation. In 1935, Congress grabbed hold of the idea and enacted the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and some 500,000 women and their children began receiving benefits. By 1969, those numbers had grown to nearly 7 million. 

By the 1980s, concern had shifted to what many believed to be an unhealthy growing dependency on welfare—a generational welfare cycle. Proponents of reform argued that welfare recipients needed more opportunities to work and support themselves in order to achieve financial independence from the government.
Critics argued the problem was more a lack of good jobs that paid enough to get welfare recipients out of poverty than with their dependency on benefits.

Wisconsin in 1987 enacted the nation’s first “welfare to work” legislation requiring recipients to be actively engaged in training or education. Many states modeled changes in their programs after Wisconsin’s approach. And, in 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that reflected much of the Wisconsin law, and has fundamentally changed the way benefits are provided nationwide. 

Workers and the Workplace

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set an 8-hour day and 40-hour work-week, established a minimum wage, set overtime pay and restricted child labor. It was the brainchild of Senator Hugo Black, who first introduced the bill in 1932. But states were hard at work setting workplace standards and wages long before Black’s federal legislation. 

In 1849, Pennsylvania passed one of the first child labor laws, restricting children to working no more than 10 hours a day and no more than 60 hours a week. By 1887, the legislature set the minimum age at 12 to work in the more dangerous places such as coal mines, mills and factories.

New York’s early workplace law faced a different ending. Lawmakers passed the Bakeshop Act in 1897, which set a maximum work week of 60 hours in bakeries. But the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the law was unconstitutional in 1905 under the 14th Amendment for violating the right to buy and sell labor.
The District of Columbia passed a minimum wage law for women and children in 1918, but in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down too, ruling it violated the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause by restricting a citizen’s right to “freely contract labor.” 

In 1910, New York passed the first workers’ compensation law; 44 states passed similar laws between 1911 and 1921. Congress nationalized the idea with the Federal Employees Compensation Act of 1916, which offered compensation for lost wages, medical care and survivor benefits to federal employees who were injured or killed on the job. 

The Action’s in the States

State lawmakers have built a mighty legacy of innovation. With Washington, D.C., mired in gridlock on issues from immigration to taxes, it might look like government is at a standstill. Not so. The nation’s 7,383 state lawmakers are hard at work developing local solutions to new problems and discovering new ways to solve old concerns—just as they have in the past. 

Tricia Simmons is a meetings manager in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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