— Mary Bottari and Jessica Mason
Ironies abound in the 2016 agenda for the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators at luxury hotels to vote side-by-side on "model bills" that then pop up in states across the country.
ALEC is not worried about the corporate lobbyists stacking its board and committees, or the taxpayer money being shelled out so some politicians can afford the swank Omni, or direct government subsidies to ALEC (like Tennessee's $100,000 grant approved recently to underwrite a future ALEC conference in Nashville). No, ALEC is worried about city and county governments that join statewide associations to lobby state government for funds to provide services to everyday people. Stomping out this type of public interest "lobbying" is a big agenda item of the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity and part and parcel of ALEC's agenda to preempt local democracy.
ALEC's efforts to handcuff local democracy are just one of the highlights of ALEC's 2016 Spring Task Force Summit agenda.
Handcuffing Government through a Constitutional Amendment
Article V of the U.S. Constitution lays out two routes for adding an amendment: it can be proposed by Congress or by a Constitutional Convention convened by two-thirds of the states (34). Three-fourths of the states (38) have to ratify it.
Calling a convention or to add a devastating balanced budget amendment has been a top priority for ALEC and other extreme right groups in recent years.
Economists like Dean Baker warn that a balanced budget amendment would end Social Security and Medicare as we know it. It would radically limit the federal government's ability to respond to economic downturns, deepening recession by preventing the government from using economic stimulus, and it would limit the government's ability to help states deal with heavy weather disasters that are occurring with increasing frequency as the planet warms.
Last year, ALEC's Task Force on Federalism and International Relations devoted most of its own session to the Article V strategy. This year the task force is offering a workshop discussing "How a State Drafted and Ratified Balanced Budget Amendment." The event features the Heartland Institute's David Guldenschuh, Admiral William Owens, who runs a telecom consulting firm, and national coordinator of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force Bill Fruth. A diversity of resolutions have passed at the state level, and the right-wing believes they are close to being able to call an convention.
Taking the "Compensation" Out of Workers' Comp
Workers' compensation programs will be under fire at the Civil Justice Task Force (Agenda PDF) and Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force (Agenda PDF) meetings. Both will review a new "ALEC Statement of Principles on Workers' Compensation," which makes it harder for workers to obtain compensation for injuries by pushing back on "activist" courts that favor workers, and limiting "unnecessary litigation" by requiring workers' comp-related lawsuits be decided by a preponderance of evidence test.
The Civil Justice Task Force will also vote on "The Actual Harms Act," a bill that aims to further limit consumer access to the courts by requiring that plaintiffs in many tort cases show they have suffered "real injuries and actual losses." The bill is an attempt to label certain consumer suits and class actions as "no injury," frivolous lawsuits, but the harms are abundant, as the consumer group Public Citizen details in a recent report. Actual injuries include "the need to repair or replace products to avoid serious injury, the economic injury of paying for a defective product that is not worth the premium price charged for it, the harm of receiving a worthless product that is not what it was held out to be, and the harm of paying extra for qualities a product is said to have, but does not in fact have."
Preventing consumers from accessing justice when they have been injured or harmed by products such as pharmaceuticals and tobacco has long been a priority item for ALEC, which is underwritten by tobacco firms, pharmaceutical firms, and other corporations selling potentially dangerous consumer products.
Criminal Justice "Reform" and Blocking Consumer Access to the Courts
In recent years, the Kochs have been talking "criminal justice reform," but CMD exposed their self-interest in a federal reform measure that makes it harder to prosecute corporate crimes by requiring prosecutors to prove intent, or "mens rea" in Latin. Up for review this year is ALEC's old bill requiring the same mens rea protections for corporate criminals.
Another blast-from-the-past model policy now up for five-year review is the "Law Enforcement Officer Safety Equipment Fund Act," which allowed fees from traffic violations to fund police departments; similar policies came under heavy criticism in 2014 after it became clear that police in Ferguson, Missouri and many other cities were relying on traffic fees—often resulting from racially biased traffic stops—to fund basic government services.
Keeping the for-profit bail bonds industry happy is still an ALEC priority. It is doubtful that session's presentation on "Community Recognizance Indigent Bond" will follow the lead of states like Vermont and Colorado in limiting the use of pre-trail bail for low-risk defendants, which has a harsh impact on the poor; the presentation is being given by Nicholas Wachinski, former Executive Director of the American Bail Coalition and now the CEO of Lexington National, a surety company "built by bondsmen for bondsmen." In 2014, Wachinski testified against a New Jersey bill that would have expanded non-monetary pre-trial bail alternatives, and other recent ALEC model bills have aimed to expand parole supervision and the role of private bondsmen in it.
After decades of ALEC-backed "tough on crime" policies like "Truth in Sentencing" that have locked up generations of young people, ALEC appears to be looking for opportunities to soften its image. The Criminal Justice Reform Task Force (Agenda PDF) will debate a bill to encourage the federal government to eliminate a requirement that juveniles be added to state sex offender registries, and a bill to require state reporting on a wide range of demographics and costs related to solitary confinement in state prisons.
Privatizing Schools and Higher Ed Culture Wars
ALEC's Education and Workforce Development Task Force (Agenda PDF) will hear presentations on charter school policies and funding mechanisms from pro-privatization groups like the Center for Education Reform and the Koch-funded Goldwater Institute. The task force also has a plan to amend its Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act, which gives tax credits to corporations and wealthy individuals who fund scholarship programs for private and charter schools. The old bill had capped the credit at 50 percent of the filer's tax liability, noting in a footnote that anything higher would lead to criticism that the program diverted money from public services to private schools. The new version would eliminate the cap, along with the footnote—an important change that reveals ALEC's actual agenda here is not to help the underprivileged, but to subsidize wealthier parents already sending their kids to private school
Meanwhile EWD's Higher Education Subcommittee is bringing the culture wars back to college campuses with a model "Resolution Regarding Academic Freedom on Campus." A related panel on "Campus Freedom and State Legislative Policy" includes a speaker from the anti-affirmative action Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has been at the forefront of right-wing rhetoric attacking campus activism on racial justice and gender discrimination as threats to free speech and rigorous education.
Still Attacking Federal Agencies on Environment and Lands Policies
The Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force (Agenda PDF) has no new model policies this time around, but is keeping up the fight against environmental protections on behalf of oil, coal, and mining interests. Attendees will be updated on the ALEC-led litigation strategy against the Clean Power Plan and will hear presentations on air pollution standards and stream protection rules.
Unfazed by the total debacle of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last summer, which demonstrated the extremism of right-wing groups trying to seize federal lands, the task force will also hear a presentation on "Fighting the Bureau of Land Management to Defend Red River Private Property Rights."
New Markets for Big PhRMA
The heroin epidemic will be front and center for the Health and Human Services Task Force (Agenda PDF), which will vote on new model policies covering opioid treatment programs, prescription drug monitoring, requiring first responders to carry the overdose drug naloxone and providing legal immunity for first responders who administer it. The bills strongly resemble their Wisconsin inspirations, even including references to the state in drafting notes.
The task force will also hear two presentations on the "right to try," a proposed "right" for terminally ill individuals to test out drugs that haven't been approved by the FDA, an agenda being pushed by lobbying powerhouse PhRMA and the Goldwater Institute, which promotes a model "right to try" bill. HHS private sector chair John Schlatter is the State Government Affairs Director for Takeda Pharmaceuticals, whose specialties include oncology drugs. Public Citizen has noted that the FDA already has a straightforward method for patients to obtain unapproved drugs, and that these efforts may cause more harm than good by weakening existing consumer protections.
Tax Breaks for Telecom
The Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force (Agenda PDF) will cover a grab-bag of special interest tax breaks, and push more measures to slash federal government programs.
TFP will consider two new resolutions. The "Resolution in Support of Non-Discriminatory Property Tax Policies" is a property tax cut for the telecom industry. The "Resolution in Support of Ending Unauthorized Federal Spending" supports a Koch-backed bill called the USA Act by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-WA). Federal programs at risk include: Veterans Administration health care funding, Federal Elections Committee funding among others.
The tax cut for telecom bill will also be considered by the Communications and Technology Task Force (Agenda PDF), along with a resolution opposing new FCC rules that would give cable consumers more choice over set-top boxes. That change could cut into the bottom line of cable and network providers, including ALEC members AT&T, Comcast, and Cox Communications.
The ALEC conference will likely be accompanied by tobacco-sponsored cigar parties and other social activities that allow lobbyists to rub shoulders with politicians and further explain the importance of their legislative proposals. Stay tuned to @ALECexposed for more in May.