Shedding Light on Bad Legislation

ALEC is pretty clear that it has generated so-called “model” legislation. This legislation in turn has shown up in almost verbatim form in various legislatures, poor Dave Agema only being the latest example. Three problems emerge from such an approach.
ALEC is back in the news, as the headline states: Progressive groups question role of American Legislative Exchange Council in writing GOP-backed bills. Zack Pohl of Progress Michigan identifies 20 bills that come out of the ALEC mill, including HB 5221, introduced by state Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, a measure requiring  voters to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote. And if that sounded familiar, it should. The Agema bill was essentially a “cut and paste” of sample legislation generated by the conservative council.

But is there any harm to that? Don’t unions and other left-leaning groups do the same? Reporter Dave Murray is at least willing to look at the issue.

The way I interpret it, ALEC isn’t initiating the legislation, it’s more of a clearinghouse.
Say Lawmaker X, R-Mitten, wants to write a bill on, say, fudge sale restrictions. He wants to know what has been effective in other states. So he contacts ALEC or attends a conference or whatever, and sees what lawmakers with similar views in other states have passed regarding fudge sales in their states, takes one of those bills and introduces it.

ALEC is pretty clear that it has generated so-called “model” legislation. This legislation in turn has shown up in almost verbatim form in various legislatures, poor Dave Agema only being the latest example. Three problems emerge from such an approach.

First, the legislation itself is crafted often with an eye to special interests, corporate or advocacy-related. The context for such legislation then is tucked away in other ideological or even commercial concerns, hidden from any real legislative oversight at the state level.

A useful instance of such legislation out of the ALEC pot would be the Stand Your Ground gun legislation.

Second, the ALEC approach effectively nationalizes issues. Rather than consider the bills in the context of the states, the “model legislation” approach imposes a sort of national legislation with minimum fuss. So we don’t get a Michigan response to guns, we get the NRA response, smuggled in through ALEC.

Third, turning to the educational reform side, the ALEC approach presents the legislature with a “solution” that may or may not fit the state. So we get legislation in search of a problem. What is cut out of the discussion is the more important issue of testing ideas within the context of the State and its particular interests. Here, a bill clearly originating from the State Chamber is preferable to one slipping in the backdoor, one without clear fingerprints as to who is interested in it. In short, ALEC works against transparency in legislation (at the least).

That it also acts as a clearinghouse for a set of special interests, often with an ideological cast (see Agema legislation, again) — well, that is only another reason to ask for transparency and accountability. Then again, the fact that ALEC comes form the mind of John Engler ought to be warning enough.

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