Originally posted on PoliticsOlogy
That's called juxtaposition.
To understand how the conservative movement has been so successful in shaping government policy over the past couple of years, it helps to take a look at the organization behind the movement. One such organization is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC first drew attention for its support for Florida's Stand Your Ground law, but that’s not all they're up to: in state after state, ALEC has been pushing conservative plans for education, taxes, and the environment, with The Koch brothers giving an undisclosed amount of money to the organization.
John Nichols at The Nation summarizes ALEC's modus operandi:
ALEC is a critical arm of the right-wing network of policy shops that, with infusions of corporate cash, has evolved to shape American politics. Inspired by Milton Friedman’s call for conservatives to "develop alternatives to existing policies [and] keep them alive and available," ALEC’s model legislation reflects long-term goals: downsizing government, removing regulations on corporations and making it harder to hold the economically and politically powerful to account.
While they make actual content of their bills and legislation only available to dues paying members, the Center for Media Law and Democracy has posted many sample bills on their website.
Those bills look awfully familiar to residents of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Due to Rhode Island's decision to reduce the amount of state cash to small towns, Woonsocket—population 40,000—is facing a $10 million budget shortfall for its schools. The State Senate wanted to modestly increase property taxes to cover the difference.
That's where ALEC stepped in. Seeing an opportunity reshape Woonsocket’s finances, Jon Brien, who is on ALEC's board of directors, refused to sign on to the State Senate’s tax increases. Although Brien denies that he’s influenced by ALEC, he’s applying their exact policy. Joe Nocera writes that, despite their relatively normal pension plans, Brien blamed the city’s shortfall on unions, who "'have been given pensions and benefits the city can no longer afford' but have no incentive to renegotiate."
Brien successfully stopped the tax increase, which left Woonsocket with no way out. In the absence of a way to raise revenue to cover their budget shortfall, the two conservative legislators pushed to take a step that ALEC loves: the city appointed a "receiver," an unelected hatchet-man, to curtail the city's spending. This receiver has powers, such as renegotiating union contracts and reducing pension plans, that even the state legislators don't. Although "there were perfectly good solutions to Woonsocket's problems that don't involve destroying the town’s pension system," Nocera summarizes what happened in a neighboring town to give a sense as to Woonsocket’s future:
In Central Falls, the receiver took an ax to retiree benefits, cutting them by 55 percent, meaning that many retirees are now getting pensions of under $20,000. The receiver has also laid off city workers, closed the city's library and shuttered a popular community center. This is the future Woonsocket now faces, thanks to its own legislators.
This is how the conservative movement has outsmarted liberals. While taking dramatic and draconian stances on the federal level has allowed Republican legislators in the House of Representatives to exercise control over the federal budget, conservatives have gained greater power at the local level. ALEC may just draft policies, but with funding from the Koch Brothers, the Gates Foundation, and Coca Cola, it was able to convince state legislators to destroy one of the their own their towns without a trace. In Woonsocket's devastated government, the success of ALEC's well-funded and national ideological movement—and the future of small town America—is plain to see.
ALEC Director of External Relations Caitlyn Korb responds"by "hijack" do you mean "not burden already hurting families with more prop taxes?"
This response does two things: it clarifies the issue and it reveals that yes, ALEC is expending resources to support this initiative. Criticism of Nocera's piece from local Rhode Island papers suggest that Brien is conservative enough to be this radical on his own.
Maybe so. But the piece they cite to defend their agenda in Bloomberg actually does the opposite. The author notes that there's a bigger pension obligation than Nocera admits. But that does not answer whether or not solving the town's budget crisis solely through government cuts is good public policy. That's because it isn't. What's going on in Woonsocket is a microcosm of the larger debate around taxes and spending for the federal budget. Yes, Woonsocket, like the United States, has huge debt obligations. That's exactly why we need a balanced solution of both spending cuts and tax increases. That's how you solve a deficit crisis. Draconian cuts will be bad for the local community, even if it's good for ALEC.