The American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded nonprofit that promotes a free-market agenda through state legislatures, has spawned an offshoot to press its case through local governments.
The American City County Exchange, which held its organizational meeting last month in Dallas, will push policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group’s state strategies.
“There are some really good ideas out there that are percolating, and those are the kinds of out-of-the-box thinking that we are really trying to push,” said Jon Russell, the group’s national director and a town council member in Culpeper, Virginia.
The exchange advances a national trend of independent groups trying to influence local governments through campaign spending or the promotion of legislation. In the case of ALEC’s group, the goal is to promote cost-cutting model legislation that would be embraced by municipalities across the nation.
“There’s a lot of money to be made in local government,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in campaign finance.
Levinson said that for the new group, “privatization makes perfect sense, working hand in glove with corporations makes perfect sense, moving the agenda or expanding the agenda to county and city makes perfect sense.”
ALEC has more than 2,000 legislative members, who join free, and almost 300 corporate and private foundation members, according to the group’s website, affording “a unique opportunity to work together to develop policies and programs that effectively promote the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.”
Memberships range from $7,000 to $25,000, giving private members the opportunity to draft model legislation and distribute to legislators. Lawmakers have found particular success in the 27 Republican-controlled legislatures, advancing bills that reduce taxes and regulations on business and set stricter voter-identification rules.
Its support of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which allow people who feel threatened to pre-emptively shoot, prompted the Washington watchdog group Common Cause to challenge the group’s nonprofit status after the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by a neighborhood watchman.
Jay Riestenberg, a research analyst at Common Cause, said the city-county group will open the door for business to influence local government, and to profit from it.
“This’ll ease the way for corporations to take over local services,” Riestenberg said. “The public sector is a $6 trillion enterprise, and this is a huge money-making opportunity for them.”
Todd Grayson, a councilman from the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, Ohio, and a founding member of the exchange, said that while membership for office-holders will be free, the organization won’t have ALEC-like ties to corporations.
“Lobbying with money, lobbying with favors doesn’t work as well in small local government as it does at the state and national level or the big-city level,” Grayson said.
Russell said the group’s agenda is still being created, although at the Dallas meetings there were workshops on outsourcing to private companies and reducing union influence.
Russell also pointed to the 2012 move to have the Perrysburg transit system run by a private operator as something ACCE would support.
“We’re pretty much fiduciary,” he said. “We look at budget items.”
The move came two years after lawmakers approved a law declaring Indiana a right-to-work state where closed union shops are illegal.
“This was a totally homegrown thing on our part,” said John Crawford, a Republican city council member who sponsored the repeal.
“Collective bargaining is a privilege, not a right, said Crawford, pointing to cost pressures in financially stressed cities including Detroit, which is in a record $18 billion municipal bankruptcy, and Chicago. ‘‘It usually leads to higher wages, benefits and restrictive work rules.’’
Bruce Getts, business manager of Local 723 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Fort Wayne, called the council’s action a precursor to outsourcing all city services to private companies. He said Republican lawmakers were influenced by the ACCE, which he called ‘‘anti-worker.’’
Grayson said exchange doesn’t mean to eliminate unions.
‘‘It’s about employing best practices,” he said, mentioning water-treatment processing, garbage handling and grass mowing as areas in which costs can be reduced. “There’s nothing sinister in this.”
Such neighborhood-level fights increasingly attract national actors. Americans for Prosperity, the pro-business group backed by Kansas-based billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, has paid for ads and mailings during elections in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Gahanna, Coralville, Iowa and elsewhere.
Bloomberg vs. NRA
In March, the group’s Wisconsin branch circulated fliers aimed at electing Iron County supervisors who supported a proposed $1.5 billion mining plant. Four of the seven candidates whom Americans for Prosperity supported won.
In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, the Independence USA political action committee purchased $151,000 in television ads aimed at defeating Sheriff David Clarke Jr., according to documents on file with the Federal Communications Commission.
The group was created by Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. The former mayor advocates stricter gun controls. Clarke, who is running in the Aug. 12 primary, has the support of the National Rifle Association.
As for the American City County Exchange, its next goals are gathering more members and honing ideas to pitch to local officials, Russell said.
“People are realizing that a lot of work happens at the local level,” said Loyola’s Levinson.
To contact the reporter on this story: Tim Jones in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org