Moments before Adam Briggle was arrested in early June along with other protesters for blocking the entrance to a fracking site in Denton, Texas, police Sgt. Scott Jenkins approached him with a smile. “He shook my hand and thanked me for my years of service to Denton,” Briggle recalled. “I thanked him as well. And then they put me in cuffs.”
In Denton’s fight against fracking, Briggle, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, became an unlikely advocate in the fight for community control over corporate interests. “I hadn’t even heard of fracking until I moved to Denton,” he said. Alarmed, however, by oil industry plans to put fracking wells close to schools, playgrounds and parks, he and other concerned citizens spent the previous four years organizing a grass-roots campaign to get an anti-fracking provision on the city ballot. In November 2014, despite being outspent 10 to 1 by energy and oil company lobbies, local anti-fracking advocates won big when Denton residents voted overwhelmingly for a citywide fracking ban, the first of its kind in Texas and one of the first nationwide.
Their victory would prove short-lived, however. Last month Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law bill HB 40 (PDF), which prohibits municipalities from barring fracking, claiming that right lies exclusively with state government. Calling the law “a vindictive overreaction,” Briggle said his act of civil disobedience at the fracking site was a symbolic acknowledgment of the efforts made by Denton citizens who stood up to Big Business.
State-level pre-emption laws like HB 40 that limit the authority of city and county governments in their dealings with private industry, while not new, have become more common in recent years. Colorado and Oklahoma also have laws abrogating local fracking bans. Seventeen states prohibit city and county governments from raising the minimum wage. Eleven states have barred local governments from mandating paid sick leave.
Critics of these pre-emption laws say their rise can be traced to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential pro-business policy organization that pairs industry representatives with state lawmakers to write model legislation for adoption by states across the country.
“There’s a national legal pre-emption strategy going on,” said Mary Bottari, the deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy. “ALEC is actively involved,” she added, noting that three of HB 40’s co-authors are current or former ALEC members, including state Rep. Phil King who is an ALEC board chairman and has been on the receiving end of $163,000 in campaign contributions from ALEC corporate members over the years.
“It’s typically Big Business interests … saying we have to have the same regulations everywhere,” said Steve Arnold, the mayor of Fitchburg, Wisconsin. Referring to a recent bill signed by Gov. Scott Walker establishing statewide standards for ride-sharing services like Uber while barring regulation by local communities, he said, “There’s no reason to think those rules should be the same [in every city]. If it’s one size fits all, that means you’re dramatically over- or underregulating some aspect.”
Looking to expand beyond its longtime role at the state government level, in 2014 ALEC launched the American City County Exchange (ACCE), which seeks to promote its pro-business legislation at the local level. The plan follows a familiar script: bring industry lobbyists and legislators together to create model legislation that lawmakers in cities and counties across the country can use as their own. The irony is that while ALEC is pushing for state control over local governments, ACCE legislation seeks to assert local control when state laws are not deemed favorable.
“It’s not about ideology. It’s about profits,” said Julia Vaughn, the policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a nonprofit government watchdog group. “ALEC is very practical in their approach and is willing to put resources wherever they need to in order to either enact a change or stop a change that suits their members’ financial interests.”
ALEC has long pushed for statewide right-to-work laws that make union membership and dues optional in the workplace. Kentucky has no such law, so last year in Bowling Green an ACCE right-to-work bill was introduced and approved by the Warren County Fiscal Court, much to the surprise of local labor groups, which were unaware of the proposal. “It was sprung on everybody,” Connie Warren of the United Automobile Workers Local 2164 told The New York Times. There was little public comment during the proceeding, the Times reported, but there was a presentation by at least one group, the Bluegrass Institute, a free-enterprise organization with close ties to ALEC.
Since the Bowling Green law was approved, ACCE-sponsored right-to-work bills have become law in 11 other Kentucky counties, with similar bills pending in four additional municipalities. If passed, the anti-union legislation would apply to roughly 800,000 Kentuckians, according to a National Review report. To date, right-to-work legislation has been the primary focus of the ACCE's local government efforts. In July the organization is hosting its second annual conference in San Diego for local lawmakers and industry representatives. Among the topics on the agenda are collective bargaining and minimum wage legislation and the privatization of public transportation.
What concerns ACCE opponents even more than specific pieces of legislation, however, is the idea of so much corporate influence migrating down to the local government level. With annual funding of more than $7 million from brothers Charles and David Koch and from multinational companies like ExxonMobil and Altria, an organization with ALEC’s resources will have outsize influence on small municipalities, critics say.
“There’s already a lot of entrenched corruption at the national and state level. Our hope for the future is with the municipalities and local level of government,” said Carla Miller, a former federal prosecutor and current fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “So to see a force that is coming in with the corporations and the lobbyists and so heavily funded … it’s upsetting.”
“ACCE is an early indoctrination on the way to do business,” added Bottari. “Going to these swank resorts and being handed bills by lobbyists … it’s a corruption of the process when legislators are taught to do this ... as opposed to meeting with their citizens, figuring out what their local problem is. There’s something fundamentally disturbing about that.”
Asked about the concern that Big Business interests could drown out local constituents, ACCE director Jon Russell maintained that’s not an issue. “We don’t lobby,” he said. “We just make information available, filling a void in policy development for local officials.”
That’s a characterization many take exception to. “I’ve always said they are the nation’s biggest lobbying firm,” countered Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a former state assemblyman. “The people who write the legislation, the special interests, give the legislation to their colleagues in ALEC who then introduce them to the state [legislature]. To call them anything but lobbyists is a misrepresentation of what they actually do.”
“Most municipalities have gift laws that prevent legislators from taking any money from corporations directly,” noted Miller. “ALEC is an ‘educational’ middleman, skirting these rules. It’s a way to get around ethics laws, giving money to local legislators by sponsoring conferences and meetings.”
By reaching out to lawmakers at the local level, Bottari said, ALEC is essentially grooming the farm team. “My county board person just became my state legislator. My state legislator just became my congressperson,” she added. “There’s a lot of ALEC graduates in Congress, and they pursue the same agenda and have some of the same connections.”
Vaughn agreed, saying, “If you can get them early and indoctrinate them into your way of thinking … that’s an investment in the future.”