Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Council helps shape legislation in Georgia (& Louisiana)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with a long history of actually fostering thoughtful journalism, has apparently sent a reporter to Grapevine, Texas to report on a body as obscure, and important, as ALEC (The American Legislative Council). They, as the title "Council helps shape legislation in Georgia" might indicate, are apparently motivated by the increasing influence of the organization in the Georgia legislature; particularly around a growing concern that the organization's signature practice of drawing up prepackaged bills for submission by any member in any state doesn't necessarily make for legislation that is good for Georgia.

The local angle is of course that ALEC is the very same organization that wrote the original "Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act" that was intended to prevent LUS from ever even thinking about building a municipal telecom utility. No doubt these guys are worth getting to know a little better. I am confident that they and their agents in our legislature will be around with new little bills to restrict local rights come the next legislative session. This article, ironically out of Atlanta, should give us a little insight into how they play the game.

Legislator join ALEC and as members they can get into the secret areas of the site where you can download a bill to call your own. (You and I, unfortunately, can't get it to take a sneak preview of next year's bills.) ALEC legislative members download bills from the ALEC server and then submit them as ones they "author." That these bills uniformly represent corporate interests should come as little surprise:
The organization, with a staff of 30 and a $5.5 million yearly budget, teams lawmakers up with corporate interests to push decidedly pro-business bills through state legislatures...

ALEC, founded in 1973, claims a national membership of more than 2,400 state legislators in both political parties, as well as more than 300 private-sector members including BellSouth, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Motors and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The real work of ALEC takes place in private task force committee meetings, which are co-chaired by a legislator and an industry representative. A Texas state legislator and a Wal-Mart executive, for example, head the ALEC criminal justice task force.

Not everyone thinks that this method of drafting legislation is a good idea:

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said he is troubled when lawmakers introduce "cookie-cutter" bills crafted by outside groups.
"Certainly you want to be open to ideas from wherever they come from, but I'm not one to carry the agenda of an external, non-legislative group," Brown said. "I don't have a problem with the business community advancing their ideas, but I do have a problem with them essentially controlling the agenda."
He's not worried about nothing:

In 2004, Georgia lawmakers introduced 43 ALEC model bills and passed seven. Nationwide, legislators introduced 1,108 ALEC bills and enacted 178, according to the group. Totals for 2005 aren't available yet, but the list includes a law that makes it harder to bring a claim regarding asbestos or silica. Ehrhart said that initiative in Georgia was "purely an ALEC bill — every word."
Louisiana and particularly Lafayette have cause to be worried as well. ALEC in recent years has put forward legislation that favors not so much conservative causes as corporate ones. The overwhelming majority of their money comes from corporate sponship--"dues" of the members of state legislators are nominal and account for less than 1% of the money needed to support their Washington office and staff of law-writers. The rest comes, apparently, from corporate coffers. I say apparently because no one is any longer sure how they are funded. Like the Heartland Institute they no longer release the names of contributors. A wave of criticism in the mid-nineties of the practice of selling membership on the committees that oversee and set policy for the various areas (like Telecommunications, which at the time cost twice what any other policy area cost) lead to their removing their list of contributers from their website. (Both BellSouth and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have a history of giving. Cox is a member...see below.) What is not a secret is that legislation is written by a staff paid with corporate funds and that and policy guidance give by legislators is always balanced by the corporation--a one to one ratio is enforced. BellSouth and the telecommunications industry can simply make sure that nothing that is not in their best interests is ever seriously considered. --ALEC is organized in such a way that it can be nothing but a creature of corportate interests.

What should not surprise us is that ALEC's chair for Louisiana is the same Senator Noble Ellington that gutted out a rural broadband bill he had sponsored to make it possible for the ALEC bill to get into the legislative process after the date for submitting "new" bills had closed. Ellington "wrote" the so-called Local Goverment Fair Competition Act. Of course, he didn't write it, ALEC did, but he submitted it as his own. What I did not realize, until I dug through the website down to ALEC's Louisiana page was that Noble Ellington is the state chair of ALEC's public side. From the site:
ALEC Public Sector State Chair
Sen. Noble Ellington
State Capitol
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
Leg. Ph: (504)342-7259
But further rooting around made for even more interesting reading: the ignoble Ellington is listed on ALEC's telecom policy page as having gone to Seattle, Washington to discuss the ALEC's bill he sponsored to block Lafayette's project on July 30th 2004—with a representative from Cox Communications.
Louisiana Senator Noble Ellington, ALEC State Chair, and John Spalding, Cox Communications discussed Municipal Competition, LA SB 877.
It appears that not only is Ellington willing to front a law for corporate interests against the interests of Louisiana citizens; he is also willing to scurry off to the west coast to present with a represtative of one the corporations that benefited most weeks after the law has become law. Call me unsympathetic, call me naive, but that doesn't seem like the way a legislator who is elected by citizens rather than corporations ought to be behaving.

Ellington bears watching. And it's not only Lafayette's interests that are at risk: Ellington is also the Senate's representative on the Louisiana Broadband Council (as Mike reported in an earlier post) that is supposed to encourage rural broadband access. Will he be just as cozy with the teleco incumbents when his own rural constituents are at risk? It's a question worth asking.

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