Burns and ALEC

For a one-party state, Arizona has a surprisingly split political personality.
On one hand there's proposition politics. Place a question on the ballot, and Arizona voters instantly think like Abbie Hoffman. In recent times, Arizonans have said "yes" to radical campaign finance reform and one of the country's highest tobacco taxes. They said "no" to so-called "tort reform," a favorite among business interests; and to a "private property rights" measure aimed to keep the Endangered Species Act out of the way of development. And last month, for the second time, they approved the medical use of marijuana.

But when it comes to candidates, the same voters send a different message. They keep sending the likes of Atilla the Hun back to the Arizona Legislature. Compounding the puzzle is the fact that the state Legislature is so out of touch with the people--and so indifferent to their will--that every time a progressive initiative does pass, the lawmakers try to dismantle it. This year, some progressive activists finally got smart and came up with a ballot initiative, the Voter Protection Act, which makes it more difficult for the Legislature to mess around with initiatives and referendums already approved by the people.

That one passed, too.
So why are the citizens of Arizona and the majority of their state legislators poles apart? I think I've found the missing link: the American Legislative Exchange Council, nicknamed ALEC.

You've likely never heard of it, but this Washington, D.C., think tank has wormed its agenda into most every committee room down at the Arizona capitol.

The idea behind ALEC is a simple, tactically smart one, one others have tried to emulate with less success. Instead of spreading itself all over the right wing at every government level, as the much larger Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute have, ALEC is single-minded in its purpose: It's a clearinghouse and cheerleader for conservative legislation, purely at the state level.

What does ALEC want? The group's overarching philosophy is all about what pundits call the "devolution revolution," the states rights movement.

"ALEC is dedicated to developing model policies based on the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty," according to its promotional materials. The organization is funded largely by the private business sector, whose representatives--alongside the lawmakers--actually have a hand in determining its agenda, so it's no surprise that ALEC tends to support lower taxes and other business-friendly measures.

ALEC claims a membership of 3,000 state legislators, which is a lot, considering there are only about 7,000 such officeholders in the country. While ALEC calls itself bipartisan, the elephant's share of its Arizona membership is Republican. Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Phoenix Democrat, says he doesn't know of any Arizona Democrats who attend ALEC meetings.

And this year, Arizona State Senate President Brenda Burns has been elected to chair ALEC's board of directors.

The Arizona Legislature has long been one of ALEC's favorites, because it both floats and creates model legislation for ALEC.

In the mid-Nineties, during the height of the Republican Revolution in Washington, D.C., then-governor Fife Symington and members of the Arizona Legislature, including Brenda Burns, were trying to launch a revolution of their own, fighting for ALEC's pet cause: states' rights.

When Attorney General Grant Woods wouldn't play along in the Legislature's game to pass state laws that were clear violations of federal law--like that infamous measure that "legalized" the use of federally forbidden Freon--Fife and Co. told the AG to bug off and hired their own lawyer. They created the Constitutional Defense Council. The CDC movement fizzled, but ALEC has streamlined the Arizona CDC bill and now offers it to members as one of dozens of pieces of "model legislation" they can introduce in their own statehouses.

You can see all of ALEC's model legislation on the group's Web site, at www.alec.org

There's model legislation for an environmental audit bill, which has popped up twice in our Legislature, dubbed "The Polluter Protection Act" by opponents who don't want to let business self-regulate pollution cleanup. There's model legislation for another perennial Arizona favorite, a private property rights bill, which sounds good on its face until you learn it's really designed to allow property owners to circumvent the Endangered Species Act.

ALEC borrows Arizona's bills and makes them models. But Arizona legislators also borrow ALEC's model bills and ideas floated at ALEC conferences and introduce them as their own.

Arizona's welfare reform legislation--now law--was based in large part on ALEC's model welfare reform legislation. Senator George Cunningham, a Tucson Democrat who is not a member of ALEC, says that during the 1998 legislative session, "The [Senate] Government Reform Committee existed to send ALEC's agenda onto the floor of the Senate where the Democrats and the moderate Republicans ganged up to kill it."

The Senate Government Reform Committee, led by Senator Tom Patterson, a northeast Phoenix Republican who also serves as ALEC's state chair, heard many ALEC-friendly proposals, including measures to privatize social security and authorize the continuation of the Constitutional Defense Council.

My favorites: The committee also heard bills recommending renaming National Airport in Washington, D.C., and the Squaw Peak Parkway in Phoenix after ALEC's poster boy, Ronald Reagan. It's not clear why anyone would care what the Arizona State Legislature thought about the renaming of National Airport.

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