UP #385 – Final Urban Politics from City Hall. But the show goes on!

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

I’ve decided to continue writing Urban Politics and keeping its intent and format roughly the same. However, it will obviously no longer be hosted at city hall. For that reason, I’m moving it over to my new website, which will serve as a link with others organizing both locally and nationally around urban issues. This conversion will not happen overnight. It will be a slow but deliberate process. As it grows, I expect to draw in other writers and contributors from other cities.

I’m also working on hosting the cultural elements from my current council web page, by moving over Words Worth with over 200 poems from about that number of poets, and also Film Forum, with its selection of film clips, and finally Seattle Composer. Ideally, these same cultural activities can be collected and shared from other cities.

The details still have to be worked out but as I recall Joe Cocker telling me (and about 500,000 others at Woodstock), I’ll get by “with a little help from my friends.”

One final note, should you wish to skip this next journey just unsubscribe using the link below this message and you will be cut free.

I thank each of you for making my time on the council as fulfilling an endeavor anyone could ask for.

Ever onward,

Nick

P.S. If you are free, please come by Town Hall on January 19th, 7:30 pm for my talk on Becoming a Citizen Activist – Stories, Strategies and Advice on How to Change Our World. Go to the following website https://townhallseattle.org/event/nick-licata/

UP #377 – ALEC Conference Part 6 // Will ACCE become the ALEC for Cities and Counties?

In coming to the ALEC/ACCE conference my big question was, would the American City County Exchange (ACCE) be able to duplicate ALEC’s success in getting hundreds of bills passed around the country that cripple worker and environmental protections? Would it open the floodgates to corporate influence in shaping our urban political environment?

It seemed to me that ALEC may find success in suburban and smaller cities but not in the largest metropolitan areas. That’s because their demographic profile is like Congress’s: it’s primarily older white men, which is not the profile of our largest cities.

As of 2007 there were just over 19,000 municipal governments. Although 90% of them have populations under 25,000, the 100 cities with populations of more than 100,000 account for about 20% of the nation’s population. Those cities have significant minority populations. At least 35 of them have more than 33% black residents, and that is not counting the percentage of other minority groups.

That reality has led conservative state legislators to dice up state legislative districts to pack as many democrats into as few districts as possible, i.e. limiting the voter impact of the larger cities. Now that the Supreme Court has thrown out a challenge to creating nonpartisan commissions to draw those boundaries, ALEC and ACCE, in the name of protecting state sovereignty from SCOTUS, should be expected to redouble their efforts to fight their creation.

While other major cities around the country have followed Seattle in raising the minimum wage, the right wing is pretty limited in what they can do to stop that effort – either within city councils or at the ballot box when proposed by initiative. As a result ACCE may continue to push laws and resolutions that make municipal governments cede their power to state legislatures. They can do this by stripping away the power of cities to control – or at least shape – their own economic environment. A perfect example: stopping cities from passing plastic bag bans by forcing them to go through the state legislature. This approach was deployed by ALEC for nearly two decades. Marching in lockstep with the legislative agenda of the NRA and the gun industry, ALEC peddled “preemption” of city laws through a claimed need for “consistency,” pitting rural gun owners against city efforts to control handgun crimes.

Although it wasn’t directly mentioned at this ACCE meeting, ALEC has long opposed paid sick leave or increasing the minimum wage, and ALEC has pushed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s legislation to pre-empt paid sick leave in Milwaukee. ACCE has also embraced pre-emption in other areas while simultaneously pushing an effort by Brent Yessin to use counties to attack unions. This has resulted in a lawsuit about the legality of local bodies passing so-called “right to work” measures even though federal law expressly provides that certain union rules are governed by either federal or state laws.

It seems then ACCE’s primary mission will be to augment ALEC’s efforts to keep or gain control of the state legislatures. Consequently, progressive forces cannot assume that just passing good municipal legislation will be replicated in other states or that they are secure where they have been enacted.

With over 80% of the nation’s population living in urban areas, the debate will have to be framed around improving people’s lives, both socially and economically in that context. It is possible that by attacking “preemption” legislation coming from state legislatures dominated by ALEC and its funders, progressives may be able to reach out to those supporting federalism at the municipal level as a means for obtaining greater freedom– from prejudice and poverty.

UP #376 – ALEC Conference Part 5 // Internal Divisions within ALEC

It is verifiable how large corporations push ALEC’s policies to allow them to maximize their profits while passing on the cost of mitigating any environmental damage they cause to the public sector. The same goes for the public picking up the tab for workers who need health care or housing because businesses do not pay wages that can sustain families. Nevertheless, there are deep anti-government currents within ALEC that are expressed more loudly by public officials (and think tank staff) than by the corporate representatives.

As I heard the speakers and saw the stacks of printed material available from the think tanks it was obvious that there are fissures within the ALEC membership on how they and corporations should relate to government. Most ALEC public sector members fall into one of three major factions: social conservatives and their closely aligned Christian conservatives; conservative Republican Party members; and libertarian conservatives and their closely aligned fiscal conservatives. The last group tends to be isolationists on foreign policy. Applause was light when Gov. Walker suggested to the lunch crowd that we “Put steel in front of our enemies as we go forward.”

But the divisions among the libertarian wing is minor in comparison to how both they and the social conservatives accuse mainstream Republicans of being sell outs to the system by being lax in pushing for “free market” solutions or reducing government. Mark Meckler, head of Citizens for Self-Governance, looked over a crowd of ALEC members and told them how he had never met so many liars as when he started lobbying state legislators to support a Convention of States.

The crowd gave a nervous chuckle and Meckler quickly assured them that he was sure not referring to anyone in the room. Some of those present were worried that a constitutional convention might go beyond requiring a balanced budget constitutional amendment and that it might drift into other areas far more radical. The bottom line is that the elected Republicans, who want to stay in office, will say they support something that they know they will only pursue if their constituents are behind it. That doesn’t cut it with the ideologues.

And, that is at the core of the tension within ALEC: those who really believe that government should shrink down to thimble size and those who know that at some point it just isn’t practical. The corporations that remain in ALEC support less government interference so they appear to be fine with the general concept (even though more than 100 corporations have dumped ALEC, as CMD has documented). So they may not publicly object to Texas Senator Ted Cruz accusing the federal government of having a tax structure that is purportedly leading this country toward a tyranny or West Virginia’s Solicitor General Elbert Lin telling the ALEC audience that EPA is abrogating state sovereignty.

At the end of the day, some of these public officials seemed to acknowledge that government serves some useful purpose. Some also see where it is incompetent or unresponsive, and they want taxes reduced. But what they don’t seem to see–and the corporations funding ALEC appear to be fine with that blind spot– is that too many corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes and some of them are also incompetent in providing services they take over from the government and services they provide to their customers.

In the last piece, ACCE’s future in becoming the ALEC for city governments will be addressed.

UP #375 – ALEC Conference Part 4 // ALEC’s Targets: Unions, the Supreme Court, Political Parties, & Bureaucrats

Unions are ALEC’s favorite whipping boy. When ALEC opened up their conference with Governor Steve Walker, he snapped that whip within his first few moments boasting “we took on the unions and won.” The crowd cheered. Even though union membership has been slashed by two-thirds from their peak in the mid-fifties, there are still enough left to be kicked around to show one’s allegiance to a free-market unfettered by over-paid complaining workers.

During one of ACCE panels a councilmember gave a thoughtful description of how a city’s permitting process could be streamlined, but then at the end he apologized for not laying off a bunch of city workers as it was part of a compromise to get his legislation passed.

While ALEC met inside the Hyatt in San Diego, several thousand union members and their supporters demonstrated outside opposing ALEC’s model legislation which would strip away the right of workers to organize and bargain for better working conditions. A councilmember speaking at our ACCE meeting chuckled after the sound of beating drums drifted up to the room. She smartly remarked, “We must be doing something right, if we can hear their drums.”

Later inside the elevator, several ACCE members chatted about how the demonstrators were bused in and they were just the same folks going to different sites. Another laughed and said that they were capitalists because they wanted jobs.

If the Democrat dominated unions are scorned and dismissed as a nuisance, it’s the Republican dominated SCOTUS (i.e. the Supreme Court) that is feared and loathed as an enemy of federalism and hence freedom. It seemed apparent to all present at ALEC that their recent decisions upholding gay marriage and the Affordability Care Act (aka Obamacare) trampled state sovereignty. That led to many a speaker on and off the stage to characterize SCOTUS as irrelevant and acting beyond its powers.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, renamed the Supreme Court the Extreme Court, telling an ALEC luncheon, that they “cannot make laws, they give thoughtful opinions, but they don’t have law making powers.” At another gathering, a speaker kept emphasizing how the court ‘s opinions – drawing out the last word so no one would miss her point, could be ignored since, “They don’t make laws, all they do is give opinions.”

Mark Meckler, the founder of the Tea Party Patriots and current President of Citizens for Self-Governance, argued for having a Convention of States to constitutionally limit the terms of the SCOTUS justices and possibly other federal judges.

Closer to home, at the ACCE meetings, the most apparent enemy to innovation were politicians’ own local city and county staffs and other politicians. It didn’t matter if they were Republicans or Conservatives.

Jon Russell, the director of ACCE, said the main purpose of their members was to rock the boat, get changes made. He told me how his own council was out of touch with the city’s substantial minority population, having only one black councilmember out of 9 when black residents made up close to a third of Culpeper’s population. He got the council elections moved, over opposition on the council but with the support of the local NAACP, from May to November in line with national elections in order to encourage more of the black community to vote.

A county commissioner in Indiana criticized the Republican super majority controlled legislature for funding a rapid ride bus project through an income tax increase. He assured me that he opposed this mass transit project because of the funding not the project itself. He also shared with a small group of us that the Chamber was behind the income tax, because they didn’t want businesses to spend the money on the project and instead were willing to see their workers pay for it.

A Phoenix Councilmember complained to our ACCE meeting that city staff refused to give him information on how they handled the permit process. And, that other councilmembers, Republicans and Democrats alike, didn’t care to make any changes to speed up permitting because it would be too much work. He was surprised to find that even some businesses would just as soon keep the current practices because they didn’t want to fight the system.

Other examples continued throughout the ACCE conference: stubborn and incompetent government staff, lazy and even corrupt politicians regardless of party, although Republicans came in for more berating because they should know better. Overall they were angry with the federal government, but often included the local ones they were supposed to be in charge of.

Next I’ll describe how the various clusters of fuming and frustrated ACCE & ALEC members create an organization that is both dynamic and riveted with contradictions.

UP #374 – ALEC Conference Part 3 // Where Corporations Are People Too

Unlike other political organizations of locally elected public officials, corporations, business associations, and think tanks are full voting ALEC members, referred to as the private-interest partners.

From talking to one private-interest member, the cost of joining ALEC is just over $1,000 but to vote in one of ALEC’s task forces that make policies, the cost goes above $3,000. I suspect that a higher contribution allows for greater participation: sort of a pay-to-play model. However, no fee schedule was available. I believe that a dozen corporations paid $50,000 a piece to just sponsor ALEC’s conference, and that another 42 paid at least $10,000 for that privilege.

While I could not attend ALEC’s task force meetings where corporations vote, I saw how corporations participated in ACCE’s meeting. There were five private-sector representatives at the initial orientation meeting of 15 attendees: two represented tobacco interests, including one from RJ Reynolds Tobacco, two bail bond interests, and one from the Americans for Progressive Bag Alliance, the folks who fight plastic bag bans. Some weren’t actually from corporations but lawyers servicing those businesses. At no time did I count more than 7 private sector members at a meeting, and they were always out numbered two to one by the public sector members.

All ALEC task forces, and ACCE in this case, have two co-chairs, one from the private sector and one from the public sector. At our meeting, they were Nicholas Wachinski, an attorney and former director of the American Bail Coalition, and a self-declared Democrat. The other was Mayor John Harkins of Stratford, Connecticut, and former Connecticut House Republican Caucus Chairman.

Over the two days of ACCE meetings, there were never more than 30 people in attendance. Forty-two had registered for the ACCE conference, which was held simultaneously with the ALEC meeting, sharing breakfasts and lunch to hear national speakers.

The ACCE panels covered the following topics: streamlining the permitting process as proposed by one councilmember; increasing the use of PVC piping to replace metal piping pitched by a company selling that product; exploring the use of body cameras by the head of the police union, who made an even-handed presentation; the role of federalism as a defense of state preemption laws and stopping unfunded mandates by law professor Rob Natelson; and lobbyists presenting local free-market alternatives to payday loan companies being put out of business by federal consumer protection laws.

Some panels were just business reps pitching their products within the context of promoting more local control to get around federal regulations. However, in the case of preemption, it was a strategy for passing local right to work laws in states that didn’t have those restricting laws. This clearly promoted ALEC’s goal of overturning existing federal or state laws that provided worker or environmental protections in favor of letting the free market control local decision-making. One piece of advice that came from the attorney promoting his services for this approach: don’t mess with public employees right now, they’re too powerful. There are so many other pickings to go after, wait until you have enough political momentum to focus on them.

At the end of the two-day session the ACCE members broke into 4 small task forces to discuss and propose any resolutions for consideration. Two were brought forward and passed. One called for fair competition for city water projects, which was a way of allowing PVC pipes to be included in all bids. It was probably written with the help of the lobbyist promoting his client’s products.

The other motion encouraged ACCE members to push their state legislators to adopt Arizona’s legislation denying cities from passing any plastic bag bans. I pointed out to a member that this didn’t seem to be in alignment with federalism. He said that it was too confusing to have so many different local laws and this was a more pragmatic approach. Federalism went only so far.

Ironically, in the panel discussion on cities passing their own right to work laws, arguments were made that cities should be able to be exempt from state laws that allowed workers to organize for collective bargaining. In this instance, it didn’t matter if many cities had different rules within the same state. That proposal did not come up for a vote.

It takes a majority vote within both the private and public sectors to pass any legislation in ALEC or ACCE. If one sector disagrees with the proposal it does not pass. The public sector moves the motion and the votes are taken.

In this particular instance, the public officials spoke passionately in promoting the plastic bag bans. The corporate representatives were passive. They didn’t need to beat the drum. One public official emphatically said that she did not want local government to pay for inspectors to check on the thickness of bags. The resolution was packaged as protecting retailers and consumer choice and one amendment was added by another public official, “We believe that the free market is the best arbiter for container choice.” He could have added, “and for all other decisions.” (The Center for Media and Democracy has previously documented how public officials have been scripted by the ALEC private sector to take the lead in the debate over the bills sought by the private sector, as part of ALEC’s PR claims that the public sector is driving the legislation.)

Next up, ALEC’s targeted enemies.