Just days after last November's election, jubilant members and top staffers of the notorious corporate front group, American Legislative Exchange Council, gathered for a celebratory lunch and planning session at the group's DC headquarters. But rather than looking toward Congress and the newly Republicanized White House, these schemers were drooling over so many right-wing state governments. "There's a sea of red," gushed an ALEC official, asking with delight, "What are we going to do with these new legislatures?"
Corrupt them, of course. ALEC — funded and run by such multinational giants as AT&T, Exxon Mobil, the Koch brothers and Walmart — essentially functions as a hush-hush escort service. Since 1973, it's been hooking up high-dollar corporate customers with on-the-make state lawmakers willing and eager to sponsor special interest bills. In closed-door sessions convened by ALEC, state officials and corporate lobbyists make legislative whoopee, generating "model bills" that the participating legislators carry back and introduce almost simultaneously in their multiple states.
For the last few years, ALEC has provided a major, nationwide burst of energy that's powering state preemption laws. Its strategists realized that their corporate backers' long legislative wish list (including holding down wages and freeing corporations to pollute water supplies) is repugnant and socially destructive. Preemption, however, provided a way for lawmakers to shift attention from the appalling substance of their corporate agenda to an arcane process debate about state-local governance. This back-alley channel lets corporations and the right-wing fringe outlaw or repeal progressive responses by our communities, nullify our elections and overturn court decisions favoring local people.
ALEC has pushed preemption with a vengeance, rapidly turning it from a cautiously used power to the corporate-politico cabal's weapon of choice. In 2014, for example, Jobs with Justice, Fight for 15 and other activist groups began winning campaigns in major cities for minimum wage hikes. ALEC responded by holding a how-to forum on stopping such local actions and circulated a model bill called the "Living Wage Preemption Act." Sure enough, nearly half of states have passed a version of it, with Ohio being the latest.
By a large margin, people in the Buckeye State favor raising the wage floor, and Cleveland enacted its own increase last year. But a small group of corporate profiteers, including the National Restaurant Association, howled in fury. So, last December, the state's Republican leaders rushed to appease them with a most generous Christmas gift: The Ohio legislature overruled the people's will by suddenly hammering a preemption amendment onto a completely unrelated bill. It was lawmaking by sneak attack, a crude political mugging that retroactively negated Cleveland's increase and outlawed increases by any other locality.
Used properly, preemption can be a democracy-enhancing tool for balancing governing powers. But when perverted and used badly, as is increasingly the norm, it asserts corporate interests over public good. The anti-democracy extremism of corporate profiteers and their corrupted political hacks was bluntly expressed a couple of years ago by ALEC member, Howard Stephenson. The Utah state senator announced at one of the organization's private forums: "We need to stamp out local control."
It's hardly news to the great majority of Americans, including most Republicans, that corporations already have way too much power over us. Letting elites quash our local decisions — by pulling the money strings they've attached to state officials — goes against all that America stands for. Yet the arrogance of these autocratic state officials has no limit — they're grabbing for total domination over grassroots democracy. Greg Abbott, my state's goofy governor, is one of those consumed by his own grandiosity:
"As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches to overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations is a superior approach."
People hate, hate, hate such pomposity and political overreach. So, let's run right at them. Protecting corporate profits and power by overruling democratically made local policies is a crime that's easily understood and loathed by nearly all Americans. As progressives, let's take hold of this issue; passionately challenge the preemption thugs at all levels of political action; rally a broad-based right-and-left, bottom-up coalition to reclaim our democratic rights; and beat the bejeezus out of these sorry bastards. Learn how to get involved by visiting www.DefendLocal.com.
To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.