Peace and Justice Bills Filed on Beacon Hill

This article first appeared in the MAPA Winter 2019 Newsletter.

Peace and justice advocates from across the state have launched a campaign to bring the urgent issues of nuclear disarmament, the bloated military budget, and endless wars abroad into the Massachusetts Legislature.

Mass. Peace Action and our allies in the Mass. Peace and Justice Network worked with sympathetic legislators to develop nine bills that were filed in January for consideration in the new 2019-2020 legislative session. Fifty five state legislators sponsored or co-sponsored at least one of our bills, and five sponsored all nine of them.

Known collectively as the Commonwealth Peace and Justice Agenda, the bills introduce vital questions of national policy into the State House political arena. (See page 3 for a description of the bills.) While peace issues generally fall under the purview of the federal government, our work to influence federal bodies directly (which of course must continue) has been difficult, to say the least. The executive branch has pursued an aggressive foreign policy in recent decades, under both Republicans and Democrats, and is now taken over by reckless warmongers. Most US Congress members have either gone along with this trend or have been slow to oppose it.

Thus, the importance of building a stronger grassroots movement in the states is more evident than ever. Last year, we formed the Mass. Peace and Justice Network, which brought together 39 groups to pool our efforts and gradually forge a common agenda. The coalition has met several times in Worcester and Northampton. We decided that one important focus of our work should be on the State Legislature. Legislators can educate and activate their constituents, publicize issues, and pressure Congress to act. In some cases, such as divestment of state pension funds from companies that sell weapons to Saudi Arabia or produce nuclear weapons, state legislators can take direct local action.

Multiple Approaches

While Mass. Peace Action in the past has focused on one or two bills in any given legislative session, this year the Network decided to work for an array of bills. Different groups were dedicated to different approaches and we concluded it was premature to narrow our focus. This decision has paid off. The number of our members engaged in the legislative process has increased. Teams were constituted to work on the different bills. During much of the fall, we met in small groups with legislators to hammer out the wording of the bills.

Some 30 advocates from diverse state Senate and House electoral districts gathered for our Lobby Day Jan. 23. After reviewing the core issues, teams spread out across the State House to seek co-sponsors for the various bills. We met with a friendly reception from most offices. As Rep. Mike Connolly said, “The Trump presidency has inspired a wave of resistance and activism…With these bills, we will now have several excellent opportunities to advance an agenda for peace and prosperity here in Massachusetts and across the nation.” Sen. Pat Jehlen said the danger of a nuclear launch under Trump was sufficiently real that she wanted to lead the effort to bring “No First Use” legislation into the Senate.

We believe the existence of multiple approaches will increase the public turnout and supporting testimony for the bills at hearings. It may increase the chance that they will be voted out of committee and reach the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.

Role of the Federal Budget

We expect important political battles will be fought in the State House this year around education, housing, health care, and criminal justice. For example, the Mass. Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers-MA, and the Public Higher Education Network of Mass., together with parent advocates, have launched a Fund Our Future campaign for $1.4 billion in increased state funding for both K-12 and higher education. Important bills about housing construction, expanding access to health care, continuing to reform the criminal justice system, and expanding public transit will also be debated.

In the past, legislative debate around these issues has largely ignored the role of the federal budget, although federal funding provides a considerable fraction of the state budgets for these departments. The proposed $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons upgrade alone will divert hundreds of millions of income tax dollars from Massachusetts residents away from these vital human services to feed the military contractors that will make a fortune off the new arms race. Several of the bills filed by our Network  challenge this skewed priority.

—by Andrea Burns (co-chair), Audrey Holt, Cole Harrison and Jonathan King, members of the Mass. Peace Action Legislative / Political Committee.