Tag Archives: ALEC

The Plutocrats And The Theocrats

As if ALEC wasn’t enough of a threat to citizens of red states, we now have “Project Blitz,” an effort patterned on ALEC’s all-too-successful formula.

The first thing to know about Project Blitz is that it was launched in 2015 by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation, and Wallbuilders. The latter is an organization founded by David Barton, the Republican operative and discredited historian who rejects the separation of church and state, claiming that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

I had not previously heard of Fred Clarkson, who has evidently been studying the Christian right for decades, but he came into possession of Project Blitz’s 116-page manual of model legislation in early 2018.  Clarkson says that Project Blitz  is to Christian nationalists what ALEC is to corporate plutocrats–a number of the extreme anti-choice, anti-gay and pro-Christianity measures that have emerged from legislative chambers over the past couple of years came from Project Blitz’s package of twenty “model” bills.

The bills are seemingly unrelated and range widely in content—from requiring public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust” (IGWT); to legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people; to religious exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health. The model bills, the legislative strategy and the talking points reflect the theocratic vision that’s animated a meaningful portion of the Christian Right for some time. In the context of Project Blitz’s 116-page playbook, however, they also reveal a sophisticated level of coordination and strategizing that echoes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which infamously networks probusiness state legislators, drafts sample legislation, and shares legislative ideas and strategies.

A study conducted by Americans United for Separation of Church and State counted 74 bills considered by state legislatures in 2018 that echoed the “model legislation” in the Project Blitz handbook. All are intended to erode the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

There are bills promoting “In God We Trust” on license plates and in public schools. (Here in Indiana, a bill to that effect is being considered by the legislature this year.) Then there are the “Christian heritage” bills, and those emphasizing “the importance of the Bible in history” to promote the notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation.

The measures which Project Blitz organizers admit might be “hotly contested,” are those seeking to empower licensed professionals to deny health care and other services based on religious beliefs and those that would allow adoption agencies to reject adoptive families on religious grounds.

At least 10 states have laws that allow discrimination by child welfare agencies, most of which have been passed since Project Blitz launched in 2015, and–surprise!– similar measures have been introduced in Indiana.  (I’ve previously blogged about a couple of them.)

Project Blitz–and the Trump Administration–have been described as the “death rattle” of White Christian nationalism. In 2016, Robert P. Jones wrote“The End of White Christian America,” detailing the demographic inevitability of that end.(The linked article has the graphs, and an interview with Jones.)

Project Blitz is part of the Christian Right’s  hysterical reaction to demographic reality, but recognizing that fact doesn’t make its efforts less worrisome–or less unAmerican. Just as ALEC has managed to delay regulatory reforms that would hinder the plutocracy, the legislation supported by Project Blitz would both delay the inevitable and cause considerable damage in the interim.

It’s also worth noting that today’s GOP is almost entirely composed of White Christian nationalists. In the states where Republicans hold sway, that “death rattle” is likely to be prolonged, dangerous and very, very ugly.

 

ALEC’s Priority: Gerrymandering

One of the many problems exacerbated by the loss of local journalism is the increasing nationalization of American politics. Those who follow political news are focused almost exclusively on Washington, and that focus has only intensified since 2016. If there is one thing Donald Trump is good at (and it is the only thing), it is sucking the air out of the newsroom. He’s like the wreck by the side of the road that you can’t help rubbernecking.

But we ignore state politics at our peril.

Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office because the Republican Party has been punching above its weight for a number of years. The GOP  has been able to win elections not because it can claim majority status, but because it has been able to game the system at the state level, primarily through gerrymandering and voter suppression.

And these efforts have been aided and abetted by ALEC.

ALEC–the American Legislative Exchange Council–is a powerful (and secretive) conservative organization. It is best known for preparing “model” bills favorable to its corporate members, bills that more often than not are introduced–unaltered– by conservative state legislators. ALEC has been incredibly successful in getting these measure passed, and the organization has shaped legislation in policy areas ranging from health care (undercutting the Affordable Care Act) to criminal justice (promoting private prisons). It has worked to lower taxes, eliminate environmental regulations, quash unions, and protect corporations from lawsuits, and it depends upon Republicans to achieve its aims.

So the organization’s current priority is gerrymandering.

In the early August heat, nearly 200 Republican lawmakers gathered in an Austin, Texas, hotel to learn about what one panelist described as a “political adult bloodsport.” The matter at hand — gerrymandering — could lock in Republican power in the states for another decade if successfully carried out again in 2021.

This meeting was evidently a bit less secretive than usual, since reporters were able to attend the sessions on gerrymandering. One was even able to record it.

 This unprecedented level of reporting on the panel uncovered the tactics conservatives plan to employ as they seek to maintain the Republican hold on state legislatures across the country in the crucial redistricting wars to come….

The conservative experts gave attendees a range of tips on how to approach gerrymandering, from legislative actions to legal preparedness. The panelists scoffed at the idea of appointing independent commissions in states to draw districts, a solution to partisan gerrymandering gaining traction in some states, instead urging state lawmakers to secure as much control over the process as possible. One panelist suggested Republican lawmakers work with black and Latino lawmakers to pack minority voters into districts, and another urged them to exclude noncitizens from the population numbers used to determine districts, a move that would dramatically redistribute power away from blue areas. Yet, ALEC also warned state lawmakers to be careful — to avoid using the word “gerrymander” and drawing lines too heavily based on race.

As the linked article points out, other conservative organizations may be focused on the federal government, but ALEC understands that the key to power is at the state level– and that the key to maintaining that power is redistricting.

ALEC’s ultimate goal is to have more influence on state lawmakers than the lawmakers’ voters.

They want people to listen to them and not their voters, and the way they do that is by creating these gerrymandered districts so legislators don’t have to address the concerns of their district.

Gerrymandering does more than skew lawmaking at the state level, of course–it results in unrepresentative, “safe” Congressional districts that send disproportionate numbers of Republicans to Congress. Democrats win more votes; Republicans win more seats.In House races in 2012, 1.7 million more votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans, but Republicans came away with thirty-three more congressional seats than the Democrats. Some of this is due to systemic issues, but much of it is due to gerrymandering.

After the last census, Republicans engaged in a national gerrymandering campaign that was so effective, it put Democrats at a disadvantage for a decade.

That disadvantage gave us the Tea Party and lots of laws written by ALEC .

Under Cover Of Jargon

The Indiana Statehouse is confusing. Often, that confusion is intentional. Lengthy bills are written in turgid “legalese,” and go on for pages. I’m a (recovered) lawyer and my eyes frequently glaze over.

And very often, you don’t have to be a hard-core libertarian to wonder: is this law really needed?

That was my first question when I received an email asking about Senate Bill 471, described as follows:

Would heighten the penalties for protests near oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure by creating the offenses of “criminal infrastructure facility trespass” and “critical infrastructure facility mischief.” The bill provides that an individual who knowingly enters critical infrastructure facility without permission commits critical infrastructure facility trespass, a Level 6 felony punishable by up to 30 months in prison. Under the bill, recklessly or knowingly defacing such a facility constitutes critical infrastructure facility mischief, punishable by up to six years in prison as a Level 5 felony. In either case, the individual may additionally be liable to the property owner for damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. An organization found to have conspired with an individual who commits either offense may also be liable for a fine of $100,000. The bill newly defines “critical infrastructure facility” under Indiana law to include a range of oil, gas, electric, water, telecommunications, and railroad facilities, as well as any “facility that is substantially similar” to one of the listed facilities.

No one wants to see a “critical infrastructure” damaged. But a bit of digging suggests that more is going on with this bill–being pushed in several states by ALEC, evidently in reaction to Dakota pipeline protests– than the protection of “critical” utilities.

As my correspondent notes,

This description is accurate, but to get into more specifics one of the most troubling provisions is Ch. 10, Sec. 4 that says if an organization is found to be a conspirator with a person convicted of either trespassing or committing criminal mischief on “critical infrastructure” the organization can be fined up to $100,000. Sec. 5(a) could also potentially be interpreted as creating a cause of action by someone who has suffered damages not only against the person who caused the damage, but an organization found to be a conspirator with that person, to recover those damages. If that was the case the organization could be liable for more than a $100,000.

A Sierra Club officer explains the effect:

A couple of years ago the Hoosier Chapter was in discussions with some Northwest Indiana groups about a protest at the BP Whiting Refinery to oppose its expansion to allow it to process tar sands petroleum. When it became clear that some of the groups were contemplating civil disobedience, the chapter withdrew from the discussions, since the Sierra Club forbids illegal activities. In the event, about 40 people sat in front of an access to the refinery and were arrested for trespassing. I believe that most were let go without a fine. Under the proposed law, could we be found to have participated in the protest even though we withdrew? Could we be found liable for informing the public about the protest via our website, FB, and twitter, even though we didn’t support the civil disobedience? Certainly we would have to think long and hard about even participating in such discussions under this bill.

And that, I think, illustrates the actual purpose of the bill: to stifle dissent.

Indiana already has laws against trespassing and damaging property. S.B.471 ramps up the severity of the potential charges–from misdemeanors to felonies–and greatly increases the penalties. Although the bill contains a recitation that it is not intended to apply to “constitutionally-protected activities” (a provision added to mollify opponents of the measure), the question from the Sierra Club officer illustrates the chilling effect.

If one or two people at a protest inflict damage that was unintended and unforeseen by others, those others–including not-for-profits and civic organizations–run the risk of being hit with enormous fines. Of course they would “think long and hard.” That’s the whole point.

I am aware of no evidence that existing measures against trespass and property damage are inadequate or ineffective. But unnecessary and chilling as it may be, S.B. 471 is apparently moving “under the radar” toward passage.

This is how it’s done by the big “players” who understand how the system works.

While public attention and media coverage (such as it is) are focused on high-profile measures like bias crimes and teachers pay, troubling laws get a pass–in both senses of that word.

 

 

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.

 

About Those Rankings…

A reader recently sent me a link to a ranking of U.S. states on the basis of how “business-friendly” they are. The more welcoming to business, the more likely to create jobs and experience economic growth–or so the organization doing the ranking asserted.

The organization doing this particular ranking was ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is dominated by corporate and libertarian interests, so it isn’t surprising that its definition of “business friendly” is heavily weighted toward low tax rates and corporate subsidies.

If you agree with ALEC’s priorities, I suppose having one’s state receive high marks is cause for celebration. If you don’t–and I don’t–their conclusions are pretty worthless, except, perhaps, as a cautionary tale.

City and state rankings are issued by a variety of organizations and publications; they’re the sorts of “report cards” that Mayors and Governors often brag about–conveniently overlooking the fact that virtually all of them paint a picture of how well their jurisdictions meet the sponsors’ priorities rather than providing accurate assessments of the comparative merits of the “rankees.”

I would call my critique of city and state rankings their “dirty little secret,” except it isn’t very secret: all of the various rankings–the ones I like and the ones I don’t– are inescapably a function of the values of the entity doing the ranking. (Take a look at those “best places to retire” lists. Their top choices tend to be places I’d hate, because the elements that make a community livable to me are clearly not among the criteria they’ve employed.)

ALEC  finds Indiana moderately “business friendly” because our taxes are low, and it prioritizes low taxes over elements of state environments that many businesses find more important: an educated workforce, and such quality of life measures as good schools, convenient public transportation, affordable housing and well-maintained infrastructure. The presence of those elements, of course, depends upon the adequacy of the public dollars available to support them–and we raise those public dollars through taxation.

You see the problem.

It isn’t a mystery why states like Indiana lack the first-rate public schools needed to produce that coveted educated workforce, not to mention the well-maintained public amenities that factor into a high quality of life. Like ALEC, we’ve prioritized low taxes over the maintenance of our social and physical environment.

There is a fairly substantial body of business research that finds the availability of an educated workforce and those “quality of life” measures that attract and keep talented workers much more important to businesses seeking to relocate than the level of taxation. Not that taxes aren’t an important part of the mix, but they are rarely dispositive.

If you want confirmation of that research, you need only take a look at the qualities that Amazon has listed as important as it searches for a city in which to locate its second headquarters. Or talk to the people in your city or state who are charged with economic development.

A genuinely business-friendly environment is one in which people want to live and work. Unfortunately, that isn’t something that can be produced on the cheap.