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Principles In Your State's Legislature

Friday, 06 June 2003 12:00 AM

The reason I bring this up is to alert conservatives to an arena that is likely to be targeted increasingly by the liberals. I would hate to see us wake up someday to find our efforts of nearly three decades in building up conservative strength in the states has been erased by their effort. Fortunately, we have the organization that is playing a vital role in advancing the conservative agenda where it works best -- the state and local level -- and this organization serves as our early radar system for detecting coming trends and concerns in public policy.

But this organization's reputation extends well beyond conservative circles. For the success of the American Legislative Exchange Council is evidenced by the envy it inspires and the enemies it has made among leaders of the left.

Last year, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney implored the National Conference of State Legislatures to provide "active resistance" to ALEC based on its record in effectively representing the conservative viewpoint in state-level policy-making. Those were not exactly the words that Sweeney used; they were heavily laden with the jargon of the left, but the acknowledgement that ALEC was a thorn in organized labor's side was clear enough.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, in a July 9, 2001 article credited ALEC as one of the "many institutional creations" of yours truly and implored her fellow liberals: "We need to build an ALEC for our side." Earlier this spring, The Nation's John Nichols discussed the efforts underway, particularly within the environmental movement, in renewed efforts at the state level, specifically mentioning National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, USPIRG, USAction, the Center for Policy Alternatives, and the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network. But a new group is also being formed called the American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) that views itself to be a "clearinghouse" on the left for state legislators in the same way that ALEC has been on the conservative side.

The similarity in names between ALEC and ALICE is distressing, but there should be no problem in distinguishing between the philosophies of the two organizations. Nor, as the 30th anniversary of ALEC approaches, should it be difficult to determine which one has the proven record of effectiveness.

What led to ALEC's founding was the monopoly held by liberals in the groups representing state legislators. Those groups merged into what became the National Conference of State Legislatures in 1975.

In 1973, right after we had started the Heritage Foundation, I had called a national meeting of conservative to try to formulate an agenda, and a number of state legislators came. The legislators had a caucus after the meeting led by Don Totten (R-IL). ALEC originally operated out of Schaumberg, Illinois, and it had few members. But eventually Ed Feulner and I were able to obtain a grant to move it to Washington.

Due to the work that Kathy Teague Rothschild did as executive director, which included a successful effort to derail the drive to grant Washington, D.C. statehood status, the organization began to gain respect and a reputation for effectiveness.

For a time, ALEC had been tilted too closely toward corporate support, but Duane Parde, the current executive director, has seen to it that there is greater independence. I am very pleased with how ALEC is doing, more so now than in many years.

In Parde's view, the work of ALEC is supposed to strive to reflect its members' interests, not the other way around.

Parde says The Nation article should serve as a useful reminder to conservatives that while we are understandably focusing attention on Washington given our influence in Congress and the Administration, we should not forget that state legislatures still wield extraordinary power over our lives. This is particularly true on important issues such as education, civil and criminal justice, and health care. The states frequently serve as the launch pads for ideas that will rocket to the top of the national agenda. Indeed, the issue of welfare reform did just that thanks in large part to the pioneering work of former ALEC member Tommy Thompson, once he became governor of Wisconsin.

As an example of how the states can circumvent Washington gridlock, Parde says the votes in the U.S. Senate are just not there for substantive tort reform. But approximately a dozen states have used the model legislation developed by ALEC to provide some kind of relief from "jackpot justice," unwarranted settlements that are costly to consumers and businesses and medical practitioners.

Legislators, of course, are free to take the model bills that ALEC develops and adapt them to what will work in their state. That is very much the point of an organization like ALEC that realizes the states are very different and one-size-fits-all, top-down solutions simply do not work.

So, on education, Parde says with pride that they have developed model legislation on both school vouchers and tax credits. ALEC was active in the successful effort to pass a voucher program in Colorado. But in Missouri, tax credits would work better there, and ALEC worked with "Show Me" state legislators who were trying to pass a tax credit bill. It didn't succeed in this legislative session, but there's hope of resurrecting a similar bill in the next one.

ALEC works with other conservative groups too. States face their biggest budget crunches since the end of World War II. So ALEC issued a publication in conjunction with The Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation called "Show Me The Money: Budget-cutting Strategies For Cash-strapped States" that presents money-saving ideas. They include rewarding employees for making money-saving suggestions and increasing the use of technology to reduce costs. Another idea mentioned is staging periodic reviews of state government to ensure that bureaucratic waste and duplication is regularly pruned out of the budget.

Right now, ALEC is wrestling with how to help states bring soaring Medicaid costs under control, something that needs to be arrested soon before taxpayers really start to feel its money-gobbling bite.

ALEC has been crossing swords with environmental groups at the state level as the greens try pushing Kyoto-style legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. That is bad news because the Heartland Institute's projections show that a national program whose goal would be to have carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 fall seven percent below the 1990 level would send electricity prices soaring, eliminate millions of jobs, and cause household income to plunge.

This year alone, there were over 90 such bills introduced, aimed at implementing Kyoto-style regulations on the state level, and the good news is that 49 have died in session. The bad news is that 38 bills are still active and several have been passed. California has a reputation for being a trend-setter state, and it was the first one to put a law on the books requiring limits on carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles by 2009

New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Oregon are states that ALEC expresses particular concern about because they too might pass such burdensome, expensive regulatory measures that would pose serious threats to their economic climates.

But give ALEC credit: It does welcome debate and its upcoming 30th anniversary meeting in Washington will feature a debate on this very topic between one of the more prominent environmental groups and CATO.

Principled conservatives realize the importance of "individual liberty, limited government, federalism, and free markets," the very ideals that are emphasized in ALEC's mission statement. What is also impressive about ALEC is that it is truly a bipartisan organization. A fifth of its members are Democrats interested in advancing the realistic ideals expressed by that mission statement, rather than the left's bumpersticker philosophies and ideas that inevitably translate into expensive, failed Great Society-style schemes.

Nor is ALEC an organization that shies away from speaking truth to power when need be. Even though Tommy Thompson, now Secretary of Health & Human Services, is an ALEC alumni member, when the Centers for Disease Control, which falls under his purview, promoted a plan called the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act that would threaten our civil liberties, ALEC blew the whistle on this draconian measure. Since then, it has been working to make sure legislators know just what are the civil liberties unfriendly provisions of this `model' bill.

If that's not enough to convince you of ALEC's importance, here's a statistic that might impress. Nearly one hundred of its former members are now in Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), and House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), who was a founding member. Tommy Thompson and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card are ex-members who hold high-level positions in the Bush administration.

If there's a lesson for conservative activists, it's this: What happens back in our home states matters more than we frequently realize, particularly during an era when cable news supplies 24/7 coverage of Washington, and local newspapers have been paring back their coverage of state capitals. Yet politics remains very much a local activity, something that the Bush White House and Republican National Committee acknowledged last year by improving their grassroots voter turnout operations in the midterm elections. The same holds true for policy making. Lasting victories with a firm foundation are built bottom-up, not top-down.

If we are going to retain our vibrancy as a movement, we can never afford to let our focus drift so much toward Washington that we take our attention completely away from what's going on in the states. Particularly now. Remember: We have ALEC and it is more effective than ever, but let us falter and there are groups and state legislators on the left who are ready to rush in to fill the void.

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The reason I bring this up is to alert conservatives to an arena that is likely to be targeted increasingly by the liberals. I would hate to see us wake up someday to find our efforts of nearly three decades in building up conservative strength in the states has been...
Friday, 06 June 2003 12:00 AM
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