Tag Archives: 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.

 

 

 

ALEC and Indiana’s Voucher Program

A friend recently sent me a rather eye-opening article by three Ball State University researchers. It appeared in an academic journal aimed at school superintendents: The AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. (No link available.)

The title was provocative: Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana’s Abdication of Democracy. Few scholarly articles have titles quite that…combative, but the data was compelling (and the four pages of references were impressive).

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, a result the article attributes to the excessive influence of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in the state. ALEC is a corporate lobbying organization, and its educational task forces are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, the Friedman Foundation, Koch Industries, Sylvan Learning and several others; it’s fair to say–as the authors do– that the intensely ideological organization believes “competition is the only legitimate organizing principle for human activity.”

Some 25% of Indiana legislators are members of ALEC, which has been “a legislative force working silently behind the scenes in the Indiana Statehouse.”

The article traces the growth of Indiana’s school voucher program through its abandonment of initial enrollment caps, and the jettisoning of the early rule that children would not be eligible for vouchers unless they’d attended a public school for at least one year. Today, 55% of children using vouchers never attended a public school, and children who enroll in private preschools that accept vouchers are “automatically enrolled” in Indiana’s “choice scholarship” program.

The program is no longer limited to poor children, either: 31% of voucher families could afford private school tuition without state subsidies.

State support for vouchers in 2016-2017 totaled 146.1 million dollars. Between 2011 and 2017, Indiana has spent 520 million dollars on vouchers–and those are dollars that would otherwise have supported public schools. (To add insult to injury, the General Assembly has not required financial reporting by voucher schools–although public schools must disclose their finances.)

In the U.S., 80% of children in private schools are in religious schools; in Indiana, that number is 98%.

So much for the law and the money and the overwhelming influence of ALEC and religion: how are voucher schools performing?

Not very well.

Research shows “persistent, statistically-significant negative impacts” in math, and no improvement over public schools in reading. According to the report, almost 25% of these schools earned F grades from the state in 2015-16, compared to 5% of public schools ; every single online school got an F.

Then there’s segregation. Indiana’s voucher program has “become increasingly affluent and white,” which shouldn’t surprise us, since these schools “set their own admission standards and can reject students for any reason.”

There is much more–none of it reassuring.

Indiana’s voucher program is driven by the libertarian ideology of ALEC and the religious zealotry of Mike Pence and (later) Betsy DeVos–not by considered policymaking by school boards elected to make those policies. The program is draining resources from  schools that serve all children, and redirecting those resources to religious institutions that may or may not be teaching real science and accurate American history.

My biggest problem with these programs is in their underlying assumption that education is just another consumer good–a set of skills to make one’s child competitive in the marketplace. Certainly, schools should provide those skills, but in the U.S., public education is also, in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase, “constitutive of a public.” It is an essential element of democracy, especially in a country as diverse as ours.

Our democratic institutions and norms are currently under unprecedented attack from a feckless Congress and a lunatic in the White House–this is no time to shortchange the public schools, no time to abandon e pluribus unum for profit-making ventures offering tribal truths and substandard educations.

ALEC’s Little Brother

Most readers of this blog know about ALEC–the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is an arm of corporate America, and writes “model” legislation for lazy legislators (most of them beholden to those corporations for sizable campaign contributions) to introduce as their own. Once ALEC began to receive a good deal of public scrutiny, it began to bleed members, but it is by no means incapacitated.

Now, ALEC has a municipal-level sibling. 

American City County Exchange (ACCE) was spawned by ALEC in 2014 to spread ALEC’s ideas about “limited government, free markets, and federalism” down to the most local levels of government.

The linked report, from the Mayor of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, describes what he learned about the organization from a meeting he attended:

ALEC leaders intend to hire a membership/fundraising director and researcher in 2017 and make ACCE a profit center by 2018. This, presenters said, will require ACCE to solidify relationships with traditional allies, such as the bail-bond and telecommunications industries. ACCE must also find new allies, including those who would privatize historically municipal services, often by adding technology that is easily replicated but new to municipal clients.

For example, we heard presentations from “smart cities” vendors selling information and communications technology at the meeting, in a sales pitch format called a “workshop” by ALEC.

The priorities of ACCE, as one might expect, mirror those of ALEC: privatization of government functions, evisceration of public unions…the group is evidently working hard to expand both its membership and the number of corporate sponsors, but it is already cranking out cookie-cutter “model” ordinances intended to move local governments toward their goals.

Sometimes, just keeping track of the corporatists and crony capitalists is exhausting.