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The ALEC-Backed War on Local Democracy

Publication Date: 3/30/2015
  • Author:Mary Bottari
  • Publication:The Center for Media and Democracy/ALEC Exposed

After the town of Denton, Texas passed a ballot initiative banning fracking in November 2014, the oil and gas industry reacted with outrage and swiftly filed suit. Politicians in the state capitol responded with a fusillade of bills to preempt local authority over public health and safety and to subject local ballot initiatives to pre-approval by the state attorney general. There was even a bill to end local home rule altogether.

The tiny town of Denton was not alone. From New Jersey to Oregon, on topics as diverse as minimum wage, paid sick leave, community broadband, e-cigarettes, and GMOs, state politicians are stepping up their efforts to destroy a bedrock principle of U.S. governance -- the right of municipal and county authorities to legally and appropriately enact and strengthen laws that reflect local needs and priorities.

Corporate interests that spend hundreds of millions a year on state and federal lobbying have grown accustomed to getting what they want at the federal and state levels, but it is much harder to assert corporate control over America's 22,553 municipal and county governments.

Preemption is part of a one-two punch corporations and politicians are using to block the advance of progressive policies at the local level, where these policies are most likely to be enacted. Just as they have done in Texas, industries and trade associations are also filing a barrage of lawsuits against local governments to frighten off other localities considering the same option. For example in Trenton, New Jersey, six trade associations -- the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Food Council, New Jersey Restaurant Association, New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, and the state branch of the National Federation of Independent Business -- have gone to court to challenge the results of the November 2014 earned sick days ballot measure. A preemption bill is also looming.

A diversity of industries are pursuing this aggressive strategy against grassroots democracy, but what may be surprising to some is that a group dedicated to individual liberty and "limited government," which in 2010 authored a model bill recommending that local governments block and preempt stricter state and federal laws, is at the center of it all.

Dual-Track Strategy Outlined at ALEC: Preemption and Litigation

When cities like Seattle and Los Angeles took action to "raise the wage" in 2014, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) jumped into action. The Guardian reported that ALEC and its local government offshoot the American City County Exchange (ACCE) "launched an aggressive dual-track mission that combines legislation and litigation in what ALEC calls a 'new battleground' over worker compensation."...