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ALEC Goes Local

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is expanding its reach beyond the states to local governments.

ALEC is expanding. The group that’s long been known for promoting conservative legislation in states is now moving into local government.

It’s a smart step for ALEC. (Its formal name is the American Legislative Exchange Council.) There’s been an explosion of conservative think-tankery in states over the past decade, with many capitals and big cities now hosting groups that float ideas, which are then promoted heavily by corporate interests.

But, perhaps because there are so many thousands of localities, there’s nothing equivalent at the city or county level.

“As a conservative, as somebody who believes in more of a limited government and free-market solutions to some of the problems that exist in government, I found myself frustrated in my council experience because there weren’t resources available to me,” says Jon Russell, a former local official in Washington state who is leading the initiative, known as the American City County Exchange.

The organizations that do represent local governments don’t typically get into those sorts of ideological policy issues. The National League of Cities (NLC), for instance, tends to focus more on federal issues or to act as a clearinghouse for good ideas and practices among its members. “We don’t necessarily look at policy, or getting cities to do things differently,” says Gregory Minchak, an NLC spokesman.

Stepping into that breach, the American City County Exchange will run very much on the ALEC model, pairing up lawmakers with business groups to craft model legislation and other proposals. The effort is in its infancy -- Russell only started working full time on the project in March -- but ALEC is claiming hundreds of members have already signed up. The group will kick things off in a big way in July, at ALEC’s annual meeting.

“It’s nice to have a group like this that can provide information to me as to how other people in other areas have done positive things in terms of reducing the size of government and the scope of government,” says Todd Grayson, a member of the Perrysburg, Ohio, City Council.

Grayson says in this way the group can act like “an ideal lobbyist,” filling the void left by the lack of staff -- and the ideas they might generate -- at the local level. “There’s nobody feeding you legislation,” he says. “There’s nobody feeding you ideas for legislation.”

Not everyone thinks that ALEC or its new subsidiary will be anything like an ideal lobbyist. Already, outside interest groups are affecting elections, spending big money not just on lobbying but on local races, says Mary Bottari, deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which runs a watchdog project called ALEC Exposed. ALEC’s moving into the local level will only exacerbate that issue.

The group has never been a stranger to controversy. But it has drawn scrutiny -- and lost some major corporate members -- due to its role in promoting “stand your ground” laws, such as the one in Florida that became notorious after the Trayvon Martin killing. ALEC now says it’s getting back to basics by avoiding social issues, giving its exclusive attention to financial and regulatory matters.

There’s certainly plenty of that kind of work at the local level. Cities and counties have problems as various as their enormous numbers, but they tend to have in common concerns such as zoning, land use, placement of cell towers and, of course, taxes.

“While there may not be a model policy that works for Midland, Texas, as well as for Terre Haute, Ind., there may be bits and pieces they’re able to use,” says Russell. “We are aware that when our members start developing model policy, some of it will not be applicable for some jurisdictions. But at least the resources are there.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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