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American Legislative Exchange Council ’s long arm reaching into Maine policy

Posted Sept. 15, 2011, at 7:05 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 15, 2011, at 7:25 p.m.

Eric Russell’s story on the American Legislative Exchange Council (BDN, Sept. 14) leaves open more questions than it answers. Are our laws outsourced? Does it matter? Are our legislators taking their direction from deep-pocketed corporate interests? Does it matter that legislators’ travel and hotel costs are typically funded (all-expense-paid vacations) by ALEC to their national meetings? Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Thanks to the investigations of the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, alecexposed.org, we know of several Maine legislators with ALEC task-force assignments: Sen. Brian Langley (education), Rep. James Hamper and Sen. Mike Thibodeau (telecommunications and information technology), Sen. Deb Plowman (civil justice), Sen. Doug Thomas (energy, environment and agriculture), Sen. Chris Rector (international relations) and Rep. Ryan Harmon (tax and fiscal policy).

ALEC has task forces also on public safety and elections; commerce, insurance and economic development; and health and human services, so it would not be surprising to find other Maine lawmakers serving in those areas.

From the Dirigo Blue website we learn of numerous Maine bills taken from ALEC templates that promote school privatization. Indeed, ALEC advocates privatizing not only education but other public benefits such as health and medical care, transportation, consumer safety and environmental quality.

Tellingly, one of ALEC’s model bills would repeal zoning authority over “rural” counties (abolishing LURC in our state). And at least three bills call for state councils to streamline agency performance and outsource services to the private sector.

We have already seen such a council formed to decide the fate of LURC, and that commission is hand picked to do the bidding of leading Republican policymakers. Its constituency fits the description of ALEC’s proposed Environmental Priorities Council — a panel that would include no scientists or public-interest environmental delegates.

We will be watching closely for ALEC legislation calling for such a council, proposed to have just five members: a representative from the state Chamber of Commerce, an agency (DEP?), a representative selected by the governor, one Republican, one Democrat and an economist to chair the group and ensure that decisions are based on cost-benefit analysis, not on concerns for water quality, air pollution and other threats to public health and safety.

There are some 1,000 bills from ALEC’s playbook to be scrutinized, but here are a few that raise red flags for their potential impact on Maine’s environment and quality of life:

  • A bill to give polluters the opportunity to correct violations before issuance of “notice” or penalty.
  • A bill opposed to recycling laws on packaging (e.g., Styrofoam) and solid-waste reduction.
  • A bill that would favor private labs (reliant on corporate clients) over independent, low-cost government lab testing.
  • A bill that gives farms using corporate practices immunity from “nuisance” liability (from air or water pollution or animal abuse) as long as they follow industry-drafted best management practices.
  • A bill that advocates vegetative filter strips to minimize movement of pesticides, sediment, etc., out of growers’ fields (vegetation must tolerate pesticides used on farm fields).
  • A bill for groundwater protection that would give the Agriculture Department shared responsibility with DEP and would mandate standards less stringent than federal laws.
  • Several other agriculture bills promoting biotech (GMOs) and corporate timber harvesting.
  • Energy bills promoting nuclear power, LNG, fracking and oil/gas drilling on the outer continental shelf.

A number of ALEC bills bear directly on current proposals to protect wilderness areas in Maine. One opposes federal acquisition of public land (specifically, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act). Another resolves that local government must consent to national monument designation.

Yet another authorizes state governments to appropriate federal public lands (national parks, etc.) for oil, gas and coal extraction. The establishment of an ombudsman office within Maine’s Legislative Council would oppose any zoning perceived as threatening private-property rights.

And ALEC proposes bills criminalizing environmental activism that might be construed by law enforcement as “eco-terrorism.”

Although legislators typically do accept stipends from ALEC to attend their national gatherings, we are told by the director of Maine’s Legislative Council that Rep. Andre Cushing went to New Orleans last month on the taxpayer’s dime. Why?

I hope we can count on the BDN to dig deeper into this evolving story.

Jody Spear lives in Harborside.

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