Slimantics: Mississippi: The Free State of ALEC

 

Slim Smith

 

 

Here's how it is supposed to work:

 

Every four years, Mississippians go to the polls to elect fellow Mississippians to serve our interests by crafting legislation to address the state's unique issues. You may have heard it described as government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

 

How it really works:

 

 

Mississippi's government is "of the people, by people in Arlington, Virginia, for a conservative ideology heavily influenced by big corporate lobbyists."

 

We are, of course, talking about the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known by its acronym, ALEC.

 

Formed in the early 1970s as a response from conservative state legislators around the country to a left-ward turn in national politics (civil rights, abortion, gun legislation, etc.), ALEC sought to reverse that trend at the state level, providing model legislation state legislators could present back home.

 

There is nothing inherently wrong with a state legislator consulting a think-tank in another state or conferring with like-minded legislators from other states to address common issues.

 

Only until recent years, when lawsuits and independent newspaper investigations began to pull back the curtain on ALEC, have we started to realize ALEC's role is not merely a resource for conservative legislators, but a body that writes much of the legislation that becomes law.

 

Every year, bills presented in the Mississippi Legislature bear the unmistakable thumb-print of ALEC, especially when it comes to gun legislation, abortion, states' rights, taxes, environmental issues, labor unions and a host of favorite right-wing causes.

 

It is no coincidence the bills presented in Jackson are almost identical to those being simultaneously presented in other states, including a wave of voter ID laws. In the past couple of months, no fewer than five of those voter ID laws have been struck down in federal court.

 

It's much the same for the wave of "religious liberty laws," including the notorious HB1523 passed by the Legislature this spring, which has been struck down in U.S. District Court. Gov. Phil Bryant plans to appeal that ruling.

 

ALEC doesn't pay the legal bills when the laws it writes are challenged in court, of course. As Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood noted in a presentation to Columbus Rotary earlier this week, Mississippians pay that freight, so, hey, it's no skin off ALEC's nose.

 

Our state should not be a guinea pig for legislation crafted in Virginia. Yet, it happens all the time.

 

In 2013, Columbus legislators Gary Chism and Jeff Smith co-sponsored a bill designed to give Mississippi "sovereignty," theoretically allowing the state to pass laws that did not conform to federal law.

 

Pressed on that bill, both Chism and Smith said they didn't write the bill, but were just "asked" to present it. They didn't say who asked them to do that. Everybody knew.

 

Even for conservative Mississippians, the state's penchant for turning over the lawmaking to the fine folks in Virginia should be troubling on another front.

 

As much as two-thirds of ALEC's budget comes from big corporations -- especially big pharma and big energy. ALEC is, essentially, a lobbying firm for many big corporations. For that money, corporations are provided seats on all ALEC policy boards, where the model laws are crafted. As one former Virginia legislator and ALEC member noted, defensively, "Just because business writes a bill doesn't make it bad."

 

Let that sink in for a minute.

 

As ALEC's ties to big corporations have been exposed, many companies are leaving. More than 400 legislators and 100 companies have ended their membership in ALEC, according to one investigation. Earlier this month, AARP quit ALEC after an outcry from members around the country when its ties to ALEC were revealed. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and Ebay have also cut ties with ALEC in recent years

 

While ALEC membership is a closely-guarded secret, there is little doubt that many of Mississippi's legislators are members. We do know House Speaker Phillip Gunn is a member because he is identified as being a member of the ALEC board of directors.

 

So who runs our state, really, and whose interests are really being served?

 

It should not be too much to ask that the people we send to Jackson do their own work. We didn't send them to Jackson to pass cut-and-paste legislation.

 

Of course, we don't expect a lot from our legislators ... and we are rarely disappointed.

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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