Monday, February 6, 2012

FL lawmaker IDs her puppeteers; who pulls our strings?

This would be comical if it wasn't so important.

Remember: The difference between citizens and elected lawmakers is that lawmakers have the Constitutional authority to make laws that govern the rest of us, and to raise and spend funds (or not) to honor the state's commitments to its people.

Across the country, there are state lawmakers who choose not to do the people's bidding, but choose instead to do the bidding of a corporate-funded ideological interest group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. I've mentioned the crowd before.

Last week, in Florida, a young woman in the State House slipped up and revealed that she takes her orders from ALEC:

Progressives have long tried to expose the influence the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wields in state house across the country, but one Florida lawmaker is making it too easy.

Funded almost entirely by large corporations, ALEC produces “model legislation” favorable to industry that state lawmakers can introduce as their own bills. Usually, the legislators tweak the language of the bills to make them state-specific or to obfuscate their origins. Usually, but apparently not always.

In November, Florida state Rep. Rachel Burgin (R) introduced a resolution that would officially call on the federal government to reduce corporate taxes, but she apparently forgot to remove ALEC’s mission statement from the top of the bill, which she seems to have copied word-for-word from ALEC’s model bill.
As the government transparency group Common Cause reports, “Burgin quickly withdrew the bill hoping that no one had noticed and then re-introduced it 24-hours later, with a new bill number (HM 717), but now without the problematic paragraph.” Apparently no one noticed until this week.

While it’s no secret by now that conservative lawmakers in state capitals everywhere have used ALEC’s legislation to tear down environmental and labor regulations, curb voting rights, and coordinate a business-friendly agenda nationwide, it’s rare to see it on display so clearly.

Her accidental revelation caught the attention of her constituents:

Citizens decry the involvement of shadowy special interests and lobbying groups in our politics, so it's quite surprising that Rep. Rachel Burgin, a Republican from Tampa, tried to pass the actual mission statement of such a group into law.

It's not exactly a secret that lawmakers often don't actually write the laws they introduce. Sometimes they rely on aides, but sometimes they just pretty much copy and paste language pre-written for them by outside groups. Most, however, aren't as lazy about it as Burgin.

Burgin introduced a bill written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (more on what that is later), but she made one mistake. She forgot to delete a portion that included the groups mission statement. Yes, she tried to introduce the following language into the Florida statutes:

"WHEREAS, it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council to advance Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty..."

Burgin realized her mistake, pulled the bill, and reintroduced it under a different number 24 hours later, but not before Common Blog found the mistake.

So, yes, Burgin had introduced a bill that was written word-for-word by ALEC, but what exactly is ALEC? It describes itself as "a nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers," and boasts that about a third of state legislators across the country are members. However, state lawmakers aren't the only members. The group boasts several corporate members.

"Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights," claims the site ALEC Exposed. "These so-called 'model bills' reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations."

How much influence exactly the corporate members have over the bills that are crafted, and the group claims that corporate members get no vote on which model bills the group adapts.

Regardless, Burgin's dumb mistake inadvertently gave Floridians a clearer peak into how our legislative sausage is made.

However, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Burgin isn't writing her own legislation. She doesn't have much of a proper education in the law. The 29-year-old majored in biblical studies at the Moody Bible Institute.

And it has drawn attention to the lawmaker's curious background, and the route she took to her seat in the legislature.

Politicians like Rachel Burgin are the exact reason Americans no longer have faith in the institutions of government. After working as a legislative aide, Burgin made enough corporate friends to get herself elected to the Florida State House in 2008. At 25, Burgin was elected to the statehouse two years prior to completing college. Her voting record shows a propensity for the conservative extreme.

Do we have anyone in South Carolina who fits this description?

Do we have any South Carolinians in our legislature carrying ALEC's water, and doing its bidding?

And what exactly is ALEC's interest in our states, and why should that matter to us?

With some justification, you might ask why this really matters: even if this bill passed it wouldn’t force Congress to act. However, I think it matters because the states play a very significant role in setting the national agenda. Corporations know this, which is why they frequently use ALEC to secretly introduce their model bills, creating the impression of widespread popular uproar in the state houses. In recent years they have used this mechanism for both attacks on the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases (ALEC bill introduced in 22 states) and in pushing back against the Affordable Care Act (ALEC bill introduced in 44 states).

It also matters because the question of whether corporations should pay more or less in tax is an issue that gets to the heart of politics in America. Common Cause board chair Robert Reich writes about this tension between corporate influence and America’s economic trajectory in an op-ed published in today’s Chicago Tribune.

Rep. Burgin’s (revised) bill to reduce corporate taxes has already been voted out of the Federal Affairs Subcommittee, and is due to have a hearing in the State Affairs Committee soon. Only one external voice was heard at the subcommittee hearing, a lobbyist from the Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), a lobby group who themselves have links to ALEC. AIF is now run by notorious ex-Congressman and Florida Speaker Tom Feeney, who not only was caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal, but was once named one of the “20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress” by the organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

It matters who writes our laws and it matters who stands to benefit from them. When these are the very same entity, then we as citizens should have the right to know this.

So, who has ALEC assigned to South Carolina?

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