The conservative push to transform state and local government is organized. To reclaim progressive government, we must be equally organized. (More)

State Changes, Part III: Reclaiming Our States (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at state and local government. Thursday we examined the regressive nature of state and local taxes, and a proposal to make Florida taxes even more regressive. Yesterday we saw how state and local taxes increasingly go to private contractors who operate schools, prisons, and other formerly-public agencies. Today we conclude with how these state and local efforts are part of a coordinated, nationwide plan.

“It’s not the heat….”

Florida’s tourist season peaks in the winter, partly because northerners flee the snow and cold and partly because that’s our dry season. Our summers exemplify the adage “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.” When our legislature are in session, we sometimes utter a different adage: “It’s not the heat; it’s the stupidity.”

But it’s not just us. Last year we saw newly-elected Republican governors and state legislatures across the country embark on strikingly similar campaigns to dismantle public employee unions, privatize public schools and other government services, restrict voting, limit voter-driven ballot initiatives, impose draconian anti-immigrant laws, and reject government regulation of health care … except for pregnant women.

Meet ALEC

Those strikingly similar campaigns were neither accidental nor spontaneous. Different states’ bills often used almost identical language. And most of them traced to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. As the Center for Media and Democracy explain, to describe ALEC as “corporate-funded” misses the point:

ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line. Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. (ALEC says that corporations do not vote on the board.) They fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations – without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. It might be right. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.

When your state legislature debate and vote on a bill that would prohibit unions from spending dues for political campaign activities or bar shareholders from challenging corporate campaign contributions – why yes, that is a double standard – they are, more likely than not, considering whether to ratify a bill that was drafted by corporations and approved at an ALEC convention. Likewise if your elected leaders are considering a voter ID bill, a bill to require proof of citizenship when applying for public benefits, a resolution to limit birthright citizenship, or to prohibit sanctuary cities.

Florida House Bill 1191 – styled the Parent Empowerment Act – is simply a rewrite of ALEC’s Parent Trigger Act, with the addition that the Florida school must have been classified as “underperforming” on standardized tests. As for Florida Senate Bill 7170, making it easier for state agencies to outsource or privatize, ALEC would go even further with a bill that:

[…] prohibits state agencies, institutions, or political subdivisions supported in whole or part by any state revenues, from engaging in any activity which is in competition with private enterprise unless the agency, institution, or political subdivision can demonstrate that there is an overriding or compelling public interest served by the state’s provision of the service.

ALEC leaves Republican state legislators so little to do that they have time to make up laws like a bill to prohibit the manufacture or sale of food made with aborted human fetuses. Really.

Organizing for Progress

The Progressive States Network was founded in 2005 to reclaim our state and local governments from ALEC-drafted conservatism. PSN offer a range of planning and organizational resources, including fact sheets, model legislation, and supporting studies for policies that reward work, value families, increase democracy, promote justice, and grow the economy, but they need our support to build the informational infrastructure to match and exceed ALEC.

Yet even when PSN have that infrastructure, it won’t matter in your community or your state unless you have progressive Democratic leaders in office. To help you learn how to recruit and elect such leaders, Democracy for America offer training seminars like the one I attended this past summer. You should join and participate in your local Democratic Party organization.

As we saw back in June, progress requires organized effort. Conservatives love to talk about rugged individualism, but they don’t rely on that for political success. Neither can we.

It’s time to get involved … and reclaim our states.

+++++

Happy Saturday!