I recently returned from the American Legislative Exchange Council's 2016 States and Nation Policy Summit, in Washington, DC. As a Mayor, I was most interested in the corresponding meeting of the American City County Exchange (ACCE), an offshoot spawned by ALEC in 2014 to spread ALEC's ideas about "limited government, free markets, and federalism" down to the most local levels of government.
I had attended the 2014 ACCE conference and was eager to see how the group had evolved in its formative years. What plans were its leaders developing in response to the surprising ascension of Donald Trump to President-elect, and the consolidation of republican power in the Congress and in statehouses nationwide?
The short story is the group is working hard to expand its membership and stable of corporate sponsors, but in the meantime a handful of people are cranking out cookie-cutter "model" ordinances with little informed discussion.
ACCE Hopes for the New Year
ALEC leaders intend to hire a membership/fundraising director and researcher in 2017 and make ACCE a profit center by 2018. This, presenters said, will require ACCE to solidify relationships with traditional allies, such as the bail-bond and telecommunications industries. ACCE must also find new allies, including those who would privatize historically municipal services, often by adding technology that is easily replicated but new to municipal clients.
For example, we heard presentations from "smart cities" vendors selling information and communications technology at the meeting, in a sales pitch format called a "workshop" by ALEC.
But these goals might be hard to accomplish. In the strategic plan, ACCE boasts more than 300 local officials who gather annually, but only eight elected officials attended the Washington meeting, including me. The Executive Director of ACCE, a lobbyist from the Institute of Justice, and an ALEC staffer were also present. The meeting followed a less formal "committee meeting," apparently a committee-of-the-whole, with the same attendees, where the upcoming business was discussed and pre-approved. ACCE is supposed to have committees on community development, criminal justice, finance, and public works.
The business meeting agenda was predictable, beginning with the approval of the minutes from July meeting in Indianapolis. The minutes show that those present approved model policies to repeal personal property tax collection, demand "coordination" with federal agencies, support state preemption of local minimum wage laws, and recognize "tax freedom day." All passed unanimously.
"Coordination," as understood by ACCE, and especially by private lawyers who specialize in the area, is a legal theory that local ordinances and state statutes have equal weight to federal law, so federal agencies are required to negotiate with local authorities to work out differences on a per-project basis.
Gratitude was expressed to the outgoing public sector chair, Billy Hewes, Mayor of Gulfport, Mississippi, and the new public sector chair, Ellen Troxclair, a Council member from Austin, Texas, was recognized. Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association Executive Director Bruce Hollands was announced to replace Nicholas Wachinski, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, as private sector chair. Neither was in attendance. Predictably, PVC pipes are a big agenda item for ACCE. The industry hopes to force city engineers to accept plastic for replacing old metal pipes.
Chairs are selected and openings in the Executive Committee are filled by the Executive Committee itself, a process that insures ACCE maintains its ideological compass. The Executive Committee members go on retreat annually in the city of the public sector chair, a nice payoff for their participation and loyalty to the goals of the private sector sponsors.
The group went on to unanimously approve a cookie-cutter model: the "Public Employees Bargaining Transparency Ordinance." The concept, which has been adopted in two counties in Washington state, declares that bargaining meetings between representatives of public unions and county management are open meetings, so the public may attend.
When I asked how these ordinances were working out, I was told it's too soon to tell, and not all model ordinances are useful in every situation. There was no other discussion. It was rather strange to approve a measure with no data on effectiveness or unintended consequences. It was clear that this ordinance is intended to push the balance of power strongly toward management, holding wages static in support of ALEC's small government goals.
I also found it odd that there was only one voice vote for each measure. At the 2014 ACCE meetings, and at ALEC working group sessions I attended on this trip, there were separate votes by the public and private sector members. Both sectors must affirm any action. Perhaps there are no official ACCE private sector members (at $5000, $10,000, or $15,000 levels) or at least none that attending the meeting. (Public sector membership is $50/year.) There was also no assertion from the executive director that "a quorum is present," as there was at the 2014 meeting.
A report from the executive director revealed that ACCE was switching from emphasis on annual paid memberships to meeting attendance. Renewals from the "scholarships" for membership like the one I received in 2014 must have been disappointing. Recruitment had previously consisted of referrals from ALEC state-level public sector members. They indicated that staff had mined various available lists and will expand weekly mailings to 5,000 prospective public sector members in January. ACCE also finally has its own website rather than only pages on ALEC's. The 2017 ACCE meetings will be in Denver and Nashville.
Advice for the Trump Transition Team?
An interesting feature of this meeting was the development of a letter to the Trump transition team to highlight the most serious overreaches of federal authority that ACCE believes should be removed to "unleash the economy."
After some discussion in the committee, attendees settled on harshly criticizing HUD, the EPA, Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. They asked for no unfunded mandates. They want "coordination," as described, to be the presumptive approach used by all federal departments when working with local governments. Special wrath was leveled at the National Environmental Policy Act, for requiring environmental impact statements and environmental assessments, and the Fair Housing Act, for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule requirements, and for the disparate impact definition of discrimination.
As an observer of the drafting process from beginning to end, I know that input from local leaders was remarkably thin. Only seven of the thirteen signers were involved in drafting. Others were given an opportunity to sign later. As a mayor, I am horrified by the recommendations of this group.
After two years of operation, ACCE has not strayed from the ALEC model of producing model bills by and for corporate sponsors who either intend to prey on the public without regulation or retribution, or who hope to privatize the ongoing services which are democratically and cost-effectively delivered by cities, towns, counties, and school boards throughout the country. ALEC and ACCE are also evolving policies and structures to better insulate their corporate funders from the outrage of those they harm.
From my perspective, they continue to work to weaken, not strengthen, government capacities to deliver services, their ability to regulate corporations, and abilities to attract and retain talented and experienced public employees to work for the people.