The Republican landslide of 2010 swept into office governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Scott of Florida, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and John Kasich of Ohio. All replaced Democrats except for Scott, who replaced moderate Republican Charlie Crist.
All five of these governors ran fairly vague campaigns about cutting waste and shrinking government, but after the election each hit the ground running with a detailed and radically conservative agenda — coincidentally, the same agenda.
Some of that agenda was predictable from campaign rhetoric: budget cuts in education and medical care, tax cuts for corporations, and loosening regulations that protect consumers and workers from corporations. Voters may not have guessed the specific cuts from the ads they saw, but anybody who has been paying attention knows that when Republicans say “waste” they mean schools and medical care. And when they say “growth” or “jobs” they mean give-aways to corporations.
Strangely, though, much of the one-size-fits-every-state agenda wasn’t even hinted in the campaigns: breaking the state employee unions, for example. It is predictable that governors who want to cut education will drive a hard bargain with teachers. But in November nobody was talking about taking away collective bargaining rights or de-certifying unions. And then suddenly in February they all were.
Just as suddenly, the new governors were talking about making it harder to vote. And harder to sue. And easier to carry concealed weapons. Similar plans to start or expand private-school voucher programs appeared.
Hardly anybody ran on those issues. But on Day 1, Republicans were ready to move on them.
Even the predictable parts of the unified agenda were being pursued in suspiciously similar ways. All over the country, conservative governors decided to go big, hit hard, and push their opposition to the wall. At one point Illinois was hosting refugee legislators from both Wisconsin and Indiana.
This level of similarity would make sense if there had been some public Contract With America II that they had all signed. But there wasn’t.
Clearly, governors (or leaders of Republican legislatures in states with Democratic governors) were not calling in their local advisors and having independent conversations that all happened to reach the same conclusions.
The hidden common thread was the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC). ALEC is an organization where corporate representatives and conservative politicians meet together in secret to draft legislation that the politicians can then take back to their home states. American Radioworks claimed in 2002 that about 1/3 of state legislators are ALEC members.
ALEC has existed since conservative activist Paul Weyrich founded it in 1979, and it has been written about for years. The American Radioworks piece described how the private prison industry works through ALEC to build their market by increasing prison sentences.
But [Corrections Corporation of America] does more than chat up lawmakers at ALEC meetings. On top of its membership dues and contributions to help pay the bills for ALEC meetings, the prison company pays two thousand dollars a year for a seat on ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force. That panel writes the group’s “model” bills on crime and punishment. Until recently, a CCA official even co-chaired the task force.
… Among ALEC’s model bills: mandatory minimum sentences; Three Strikes laws, giving repeat offenders 25 years to life in prison; and “truth-in-sentencing,” which requires inmates to serve most or all of their time without a chance for parole. ALEC didn’t invent any of these ideas but has played a pivotal role in making them law in the states, says [Edwin] Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The piece ended with a quote from William Dickey, the former head of Wisconsin’s prison system:
I’ve always understood political people as having differences of opinion — tough on crime, soft on crime. But I’ve usually thought that whatever views were being held in that debate, they were sincerely arrived at. And to discover that there’s a group pushing criminal justice policy not because it’s in the public interest, but because it’s a way to make money, is disappointing to me.
But that’s just one industry. Recently we got our first look at the full scope of ALEC’s activities when the Center for Media and Democracy got its hands on 800 pieces of model legislation ALEC has written. You can find them on the web site ALEC Exposed.
The major pieces of the Walker/Scott/Snyder/Corbett/Kasich agenda are all there. (For example, the model “Public Employee Freedom Act” contains the union-busting provisions, and the “Voter ID Act” the vote-suppression provisions — including the ones that make no sense, like saying that an expired driver’s license does not establish your identity.)
There is, I rush to point out, nothing illegal about this. Any one can write model legislation and try to get a legislator to propose it. Liberal groups do it too. What is sinister, though, is the secrecy. Corporations have managed to remove their fingerprints from the laws they have written.
Whether an environmental group is pushing higher pollution standards or an polluting industry seeks lower ones, the public has a right to know where its laws are coming from, and what interests are being served.
You get an idea of the founding philosophy of ALEC from this 1980 clip of founder Paul Weyrich: “I don’t want everybody to vote. … Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”