Oklahoma Provides a Win for ALEC’s 50-State Campaign Against Democracy

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(Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)
(Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)

On Monday, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill that prohibits local governments from boosting their minimum wages or enacting laws mandating benefits like paid vacation or sick leave for working people.

Shadee Ashtari reports for The Huffington Post that “opponents of the measure view the move by Oklahoma Republicans as retaliation against an initiative underway in Oklahoma City, where organizers have been gathering signatures to raise the city’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.” That may well be a factor, but the legislation has the fingerprints of the National Restaurant Association — “the other NRA” — and the American Legislative Affairs Council (ALEC) all over it.

Business-backed groups that oppose living wages and paid leave have a serious problem on their hands: polls show that they’re popular. So-called preemption laws provide them with a solution.

In November, Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center who authored a report titled, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012,” told BillMoyers.com, “In places where people have a chance to vote, not for candidates, but on the actual laws — on minimum wage, on sick leave — there’s very broad support for those measures among Republicans and Democrats, among conservatives and liberals.

“So recently, one of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote. They’ve passed legislation in 10 states that says that cities are not allowed to vote on establishing a right to paid sick leave or on establishing a higher minimum wage. Because there are now six cities where people voted to say everybody has a right to at least five days of paid sick leave a year, and the business lobby’s response has been to take away the right to vote wherever they can.”

Oklahoma joined Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin in passing its preemption law. Similar bills have been introduced in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina and Washington State, according to Family Values at Work, a group that advocates paid sick leave and living wage ordinances.

In 2011, the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association mentioned the emerging national campaign on its blog:

Leaders from Yum! Brands, along with a state restaurant association executive are part of a panel which discussed paid sick leave mandates at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting, Aug. 3-6 in New Orleans… The organization is influential in approving and spreading “model legislation” across states. A new ALEC subcommittee is discussing the emerging issue of paid sick leave mandates. On the agenda for discussion is the Wisconsin paid-sick-leave preemption bill. The Wisconsin bill, enacted this spring with strong support from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, prevents localities from enacting paid sick leave mandates.

In Wisconsin, the bill certainly had strong support from the restaurant association, but they didn’t mention how it became law. Ellen Bravo from Family Values at Work recalls the circumstances:

In November 2008, after a robust campaign supported by a broad grassroots movement, Milwaukee voters passed a paid sick days ordinance with nearly 70 percent of the vote. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce (MMAC) weren’t able to stop the win at the voting booth. So MMAC brought a lawsuit which made its way through the courts – and they lost on every provision. Then they borrowed from the pre-emption playbook on living wage ordinances and got their buddies in the legislature, now in the majority, to ram the measure through during the time Democratic senators had left the state to deny a quorum for the budget bill.

In Pennsylvania, conservative lawmakers tried to get a preemption bill through the legislature last October, but it proved too controversial. So last month, they offered it as an amendment to a popular bill protecting victims of domestic violence that had broad bipartisan support. Republican State Sen. John Eichelberger, who sponsored the amendment, told the Huffington Post that “various business groups” had urged him to add the language.

According to Mary Bottari at the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC and/or the National Restaurant Association have ties to candidates who pushed preemption bills in at least eight of the states that have considered them.

These laws appear to voters to be measures written by their local lawmakers. But as Lafer pointed out, ALEC will often “have five or six different model laws about the same thing that are kind of calibrated to see what can pass in a given state at a given time.

“So on minimum wage, their end goal is to have there be no minimum wage at all, and they have a bill that says abolish the minimum wage, but, well, if you can’t pass that, at least don’t increase it in a way that’s linked to the rate of inflation and goes up every year. So we see, in every state, people experience these as if they come from their local legislator or as if they’re a response to the particular problems in their state, and in fact, the laws are being written largely by ALEC.”

All of this illustrates that with even the most popular laws, the influence of money in politics creates roadblocks that can be difficult to overcome. As Gordon Lafer put it, “You can buy a state legislative race for $50,000 in a lot of places. Most people don’t know who their state legislator is. And so we’ve seen a lot of laws passed that are unpopular with the public, but are being passed by legislators who are backed by corporate lobbies.”

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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