Point Austin: ALEC by Another Name

Corporate advocacy group looks to deepen local influence

Point Austin

ALEC may be coming to a town near you.

No, I don't mean Alec Baldwin – although the guy certainly needs more friends. I'm speaking of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative, corporate bill mill that has recruited hundreds of state legislators (almost all Repub­lic­ans) to join in its "nonprofit" (i.e., tax free) exercises in promoting right-wing legislation. ALEC is most notorious for its early sponsorship of "Stand Your Ground" laws – the shoot-first, get-out-of-jail later legislation that helped clear George Zimmer­man in the killing of Trayvon Martin. But in recent years, ALEC has returned to its more permanent obsessions, which tend to be the standard corporate wish list of tax cuts, freedom from regulation (especially environmental regs), opposing climate change initiatives, limiting workers' rights (particularly union organizing), restrictions on immigration, and of late, voter ID laws and other restrictions on voting. In Texas, ALEC successfully promoted a law designed to protect fracking companies from having to disclose the kinds of chemicals (i.e., "trade secrets") they inject into wells – although the measure was called, predictably, a "disclosure" law.

On the state level, legislators pay a nominal annual fee to become ALEC members, enabling them to attend ALEC conferences, schmooze with deep-pocketed sponsors, discuss draft legislation, and "vote" alongside their corporate partners in determining which model bills to carry back home. If the corporate members – who pay 98% of ALEC's bills – reject a bill (however the legislative members vote), it dies on the vine. Member legislators not only get wined and dined on corporate expense accounts, they are provided with prefabricated legislation they can then "sponsor" back home in, say, Austin.

ALEC has had plenty of success in these efforts, although it endured a PR black eye after the Trayvon Martin case, and lost quite a few legislative (especially Demo­crat­ic) and some corporate members, biting into its bipartisan reputation and its bottom line.

Free Market for Sale

But the corporate political machine never rests, and one way of expanding ALEC's reach and potential fortunes is a new initiative, the "American City County Exchange." According to its website, ALEC is in the midst of launching "America's fastest-growing volunteer membership organization of policymakers from villages, towns, cities, and counties." "Villages" (where rustic "volunteers" put out fires and hold bake sales) is a nice touch, although it's difficult to believe that corporate lobbyists wanting the most bang for their buck will spend much time working Terlingua or Cut and Shoot. (Then again, many an ambitious small-town commissioner will undoubtedly sniff the wind for corporate "partners.")

ACCE hasn't been eager to disclose what "fastest-growing" actually means. Last month, The Guardian sketched an outline of the initiative, which will reportedly be formally launched sometime this year; but concerning the group's plans, ACCE spokespersons offered no more than boilerplate. "As a group that focuses on limited government, free markets, and federalism," said ACCE spokesman Bill Meierling, "we believe our message rings true at the municipal level just as it does in state legislatures." Nick Surgey of the Center for Media and Democracy, who has monitored ALEC over the years, told me this week, "We don't really know very much" about the ACCE initiative, except that the target audience includes some 470,000 local officials, who for a nominal annual fee would be invited to hobnob and strategize with corporate sponsors on "limited government, free market" solutions to municipal problems.

ACCE in Austin?

A quick and very informal survey this week of City Council members and County Commissioners reflected no early trace of ALEC or ACCE approaching Austin-area officials. Of those who responded, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he hadn't been contacted, but (perhaps reacting to the groups' anodyne titles) said he's always open to "ways our city can encourage efficiency and discover innovative policy answers." Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, familiar with ALEC's legislative agenda, was much more cautious. She hadn't been contacted by ACCE, but said, "While I appreciate the First Amendment rights of all organizations, even those with positions I disagree with, I have been strongly opposed to policies that ALEC has been associated with."

But even if ALEC/ACCE has not yet reached out directly in Austin, it doesn't take much imagination to sketch a likely local version of the "free market" ACCE agenda. It would oppose the city of Austin's overall emphasis on environmental regulation and climate protection efforts, preferring to let "the market" determine the limits of such luxuries, including mass transit. It would find counter-productive, by definition, efforts to maintain "affordability" by the use of government-subsidized housing, entitlement negotiations, and similar strategies. And it would abhor any government "interference" in the labor market – like minimum wage requirements, mandated safety training and construction regulations, or promotion of racial and gender equity in contracting, hiring, or pay.

Among the current City Council and Travis County officials, it's not apparent that ALEC and ACCE would find fertile hunting grounds for what it calls its "free market perspective ... often left by the wayside." But judging only from the districted and much more politically polarized governments in Dallas and Houston, that could change come November, when a new and more variegated group assumes the City Hall dais. ACCE might well go looking for a 10-1 place.

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News, ALEC, American Legislative Exchange Council, American City County Exchange, Bill Meierling, Austin City Council, Travis County Commissioners, Lee Leffingwell, Sheryl Cole

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