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ALEC continues to flex its muscles in statehouses

By Jennie Young • Jun 7, 2017 at 12:00 AM

I’ve written about the American Legislative Exchange Council before, but lately I’m inspired by three prompts to refresh our understanding of its work.

The first came from a report to the Issues Group at the Democrat Resource Center by a member of Moms Demand Action after visits to offices of local officials to express concerns about increasingly loose regulation of guns in public places, risks to children and the need for sensible gun legislation. Positions vary widely, but often the common theme in responses to concerns is essentially that local hands are tied. That shouldn’t be unexpected as our and other state governments have been preempting local control over many local issues and exercising wide sweeping power like never before.

The second came after overdue legislation passed the Tennessee Legislature to require disclosure of monies provided by lobbyists for legislators’ out-of-state travel. An exemption caught my attention. Trips paid for by ALEC labeled as an “umbrella,” not a lobbying group with enormous influence in Tennessee, will not require disclosure that ALEC is the primary instigator behind the movement to center legislative control in statehouses. It’s bankrolled by wealthy backers, such as the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel giants, and most politicians prefer their support not be known.

The third came with Jim Hightower’s May issue of The LOWDOWN. It’s headlined: “Petty State-level Potentates Are Going All Out to Quash Progressive Actions by Cities and Towns: A new plague from the greediest corporations and the grubbiest politicos.”

ALEC formed almost half a century ago, but was exposed only a few years back. ALEC’s members include corporations, non-profits and state legislators. Corporations and non-profits pay tens of thousands in yearly dues and legislators only a $100 or so. It operates essentially as follows: Corporations or organization representatives write model legislation to benefit corporations on a variety of such subjects as labor, minimum wage, school choice/vouchers, environmental regulations, voter suppression, out-sourcing and curtailing local control.

The model bills reach the state legislatures via legislator members who usually introduce the bills as their own. That explains why nearly identical bills show up in statehouses across the country simultaneously.

Once ALEC was exposed, public pressure led 110 corporations (including big names like Coca Cola, GE, General Motors and Bank of America) and 19 non-profits to cancel memberships as have some legislators when investigative reporting identified them, but many persist, including many Tennessee legislators. (Efforts to expose members is ongoing and updated on the ALEC EXPOSED website.)

The usual trips ALEC pays for and can be kept secret are all-expense-paid family “vacations” at posh convention sites where legislators receive royal treatment and hobnob with wealthy influential people. It’s no small perk.

Might it give a legislator pause if he/she had overheard Michael Bowman, an ALEC official, say at the first meeting to brief corporate and non-profit members after the 2016 election: “Legislators are not the trailblazers of developing policies. They’re actually the retail consumers.”

At least that’s nicer than saying they are “programmable robots.”

ALEC and other out-of-state interest groups with big-time influence in Tennessee — like the NRA and Americans for Prosperity — depend on the growing practice of preempting local control to preserve their power. There are far too many local governing bodies for any of them to manage, but they can, as they’ve proven, pretty well control Republican state legislative majorities. (Very few Democrats are on the list of “outed” legislators.)

Preempting local control is legal and has been from our nation’s founding. It’s contained in the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution and in similar clauses in state rules. Higher levels of government, federal to state to local, can legally preempt the lower level’s right to pass laws or ordinances. But because it can be a dangerous power, it was meant to be used “sparingly and only to advance a very big public purpose” (Hightower), like preventing rank racial discrimination.

State government’s pre-emption of matters that should be locally managed is no benign thing. A town wishing, say, to prohibit a nearby mountaintop removal mining venture or fracking lines under homes and businesses should have the right to do so. It’s a serious erosion of rightful self-governance when matters specific to local civil interaction and safety cannot be addressed locally.

The preemption movement is often led by the largest and greediest of corporations, financiers and extreme right-wing politicians specifically to weaken pesky grassroots democracy. Bit by bit, personal freedoms can be hijacked, ironically, often as not in the name of “freedom.” Regardless of our stand on issues, it behooves us to be aware of where the money and influence is coming from and who is tipping the scales.

Conservative and liberal attitudes about government involvement differ widely, but that’s not bad. It helps keep balance. But this is different and dangerously so because it can co-opt state legislatures and corrupt legislators’ allegiances, and in turn erode our foundational democratic processes. The aim is often not the public good, but big profits for somebody somewhere else.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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