Smart ALEC?

Monday evening may have marked the end of the standard work day for many Oklahomans around the metro, but for a few it was the start of a protest. As always happens in the lead-up to such things, the OKC.NET email and social media accounts were buzzing. “Protest at the governor’s mansion!” implored one message “Show ALEC that the legislature isn’t for sale!” Just who is this nebulous ALEC character anyway, did he get kicked off a plane for playing Angry Birds? No? Wrong Alec? Alright, why are people so angry that e-mails and messages calling for action zipping around the Internet on such short notice?

ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is a policy organization founded by conservative activist Paul Weyrich in the 1970s to promote conservative social issues on the state level, but it has developed in the past 30 years into a vehicle for its corporate members to influence policy and legislation. According to their website, ALEC has more than 2,000 members and is “the nation’s largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators.” Corporate memberships cost between $5,000 and $50,000 with additional annual fees to participate in policy specific task forces. While ALEC is officially non-partisan, the policies they support and promote are uniformly conservative.

After decades of quietly working behind the scenes ALEC first came to higher public prominence during the fight over Wisconsin’s controversial bill to strip the collective bargaining rights of state workers. The bill was largely written in consultation with ALEC. But it’s just not Wisconsin constituents that are upset by ALEC sponsored policies. The resulting blowback has made ALEC’s press agents somewhat prickly, as evidenced in this press release from April 12:

“Over the last 24 hours, ALEC has been inundated with letters of support from elected officials, community leaders and concerned citizens in response to the intimidation campaign launched by a coalition of extreme liberal activists committed to silencing anyone who disagrees with their agenda.”

Guests leave the Governor's mansion Monday evening. In my estimation there's probably 20 yards between these people and the protestors. Also the State Highway Patrol ran security, if you weren't on the list you weren't getting past them and you surely were not getting close to that gate nor were you capable of getting "up close and personal" with someone coming and going to the event. At any given time there were 5-7 officers on site and at least 2-3 patrol cars near the gate with a couple more parked by other entrances at the Governor's mansion. Even so, protestors kept to their patch of the lawn/road. Unless you happened to be a reporter, no one else appeared to be crossing lines. Photo by Helen Grant.

This particular protest seemed run of the mill compared to previous ones I’ve covered for OKC.NET. Even so, there were chants, slogans, signs and all that rhymes. Not to criticize, but it is worth mentioning that there wasn’t a single pitchfork in sight nor were there organized dances, also zip-zero-zilch on shoes, rolling pins, and aprons, nor was there a small city of tents. It’s hard to see how anyone could be paranoid enough to feel intimidated by such a relatively low key protest. Not that previously mentioned antics are all that intimidating either – well, maybe the pitchfork, but even that had safety caps glued onto the pointed ends. At any rate, if there is anything to be said about Monday night, it’s that this protest had a high level of visibility with the people coming and going from the Governor’s mansion. Unlike the other protests mentioned where the intended audience used alternate doors, left their office early, or peeked out at protesters from windows, there was little opportunity for ALEC supporters to miss the chants and signs as they went about their business. It is perhaps that level of confrontation that ALEC’s Executive Director referred to as “intimidation.” About the most up-front thing anyone shouted at this protest was, “Shame!” I noticed this particular chant more than the signs and slogans had an effect on the otherwise unaffected guests.

For the most part people leaving the Governor’s mansion either smiled, as evidenced in the previous photograph, or shook their heads in that “Oh, silly protestors” sort of way.

I did manage to get a few words in with various legislators to get the sense for what they thought of the protest. Senator Mike Schulz (R-District 38) said, “It was just a reception. It was just a kind of a come and go, let’s visit thing. No agenda, I mean, I don’t know why their upset.” Representative Harold Wright (R-District 57) said, “I don’t know why they’re angry, but I think it maybe partly because these groups are against voter I.D.”  Senator Kim David (R-District 18) briefly echoed the same thoughts and added, “I’m just assuming they don’t like free enterprise.”

On the other side, however, the sentiment was more specific. It’s not just voter I.D. laws, but laws aimed at deregulating schools and prisons. Protestor Mary Harris, a retired computer programer from OKC, said she is not happy that Oklahoma legislators are taking laws that have been composed in legislative think tanks and applying those models within the state.  Her specific concern was about Senate Bill 1530.

SB 1530 would allow school districts to apply for the same exemptions from state education law currently offered to charter schools. This ALEC inspired bill would make it possible for districts to eliminate collective bargaining and slash teacher pay. Similar bills have passed twice before but were vetoed by former governor Brad Henry.

But what does all this political discourse mean for Oklahoma and what does this have to do with Mary Fallin?

Mary Fallin is significantly involved with ALEC. Fallin wrote the introduction for a study they published in 2010 entitled: “Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index.” According to ALEC’s metrics, Oklahoma is the 15th most prosperous state in the nation. Governor Fallin and Republican lawmakers have used the findings in the report to support the current push to eliminate the state income tax. The Oklahoma Policy Institute and others maintain that the Laffer report is misleading. In December of 2008 Fallin gave a speech at ALEC’s States and National Policy Summit in Washington D.C., where she urged people in both the public and private sector to look at examples of their model legislation.

All said, it appears as though ALEC will to continue to hold influence in shaping Oklahoma policy as long as the state is dominated by a Republican majority in both the House and Senate.

ALEC doesn’t release the names of it’s legislative members, but the following Oklahoma Legislators are identified on the ALEC website as members, are confirmed as members of ALEC task forces, have spoken at ALEC events, or have accepted awards from ALEC.

House of Representatives

Senate

Legislators ties to ALEC and the potential influence of the group on bills that are coming up for a vote soon deserve to be examined further.

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