Many Americans surely saw the interconnection this year in the brash Republican agenda for state legislatures as it played out against teachers, tenure and public employees’ unions, and in favor of new tax breaks and tax loopholes for business and corporations. From Wisconsin to Florida, Indiana to South Carolina, Minnesota to Tennessee, tea party-infused right-wingers in newly minted Republican majorities were suddenly pushing nearly identical bills spawned by the same ideological well.
Now it’s clear that they did, in fact, come from the very same source, and that private, for-profit companies were funding and pushing the multi-pronged libertarian agenda in hope of creating a corporatist surge in for-profit companies taking over government functions.
The release last week of approximately 800 “model” bills and resolutions created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, now known as ALEC, documents the movement. But don’t assume that the name ALEC stands for some intergovernmental exchange group. Rather, ALEC is the creation of a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity that is funded by a range of corporations. Its mission is to recommend and help advance the policy ideas of some 250 corporate sponsors.
It would be perfectly legal if ALEC was just providing information about its goals. In fact, documents secured by Common Cause suggest the organization is channeling its deep-pocket corporate funding to lobbying missions that over-reach its legal nonprofit limits.
Common Cause, in a letter last Friday, asked the Internal Revenue Service to audit ALEC to determine if it may have filed false tax returns, hiding the extent of its legislative lobbying, that would “put its tax-exempt, charitable status at risk.” Common Cause claimed that ALEC is effectively a dodge which lets its corporate backers deduct their contributions to ALEC from their taxable income, and that its backers wrongly misstate their taxable lobbying expenditures.
The 800 model legislative bills that ALEC has crafted do appear to constitute an under-the-radar operation which aims to lure government into weakening employee unions in order to facilitate private takeovers of government functions. It’s also no surprise that the Republican governors and legislative bodies that have pushed the ALEC agenda are, indeed, also spreading second-wave plans to privatize a range of government functions.
Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Haslam, for example, has already initiated a program to outsource — to private vendors — the care of severely intellectually handicapped citizens whose care has until now been a function of the state’s department of mental health. The governor and the Republican-dominated Legislature pushed through harsh changes to the teacher tenure laws, restrictions on public unions and their right to deduct dues that covered lobbying expenditures. They are now promoting ALEC-proposed assessments of other government functions which may be outsourced to private vendors.
The goal in all this is to turn over public services to for-profit, private businesses, which undoubtedly would shift costs from employee benefits to executive salaries. This has been the history with for-profit prisons, and now ALEC proposes to expand private intrusions into a range of other public services: i.e., foster care, water quality assurance, toll roads, monitoring of prisoners on probation.
The problem with this approach lies in the lack of accountability of private businesses that become monopoly providers of necessary government functions. Once they’re entrenched, family wages and benefits disappear, while executives and investors fatten their wallet by whittling public services down to the bone.
Of course ALEC will feed right-wing lawmakers whose mission is to shrink government. The questions are who will ultimately benefit — for-profit executives, or the quality of public services and the employees who provide them — and whether ALEC is operating legally against the public interest.