On the Nocera Column

The New York Times' Joe Nocera has a column today, "When ALEC Takes Over Your Town," taking conservative Rhode Island State Representative Jon Brien (D-Woonsocket) to task for rejecting the General Assembly's push to impose a hefty property tax on Woonsocket in a bid to save the city from financial ruin.

Much of Nocera's critique is fair. By rejecting the tax and essentially inviting a receiver into Woonsocket - a receiver with a license to make painful, unilateral cuts - Brien may be inflicting unnecessary harm on his blue-collar city in service of a conservative, small-government ideology.

But Brien, who has complained loudly about Nocera's piece, may be right about one thing. The columnist's attempts to tie Brien's actions to the legislator's post on the board of the conservative, business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (see excerpt below) seem a bit far-fetched:

Incredibly, the two Woonsocket legislators have pushed for a receiver, despite the pain that it would likely bring their city.

Or maybe it’s not so incredible. It turns out that one of them, Jon Brien, is also on the national board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Although ALEC is probably best known for its support of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, the conservative group has a very clear agenda for dealing with state budgets. It wants to shrink them. Although Brien has denied that he is applying the ALEC philosophy to his small city, it looks, in fact, as if that’s exactly what he is doing. It’s not pretty.

ALEC, of course, has become a central focus of liberal scorn. And understandably so. It has, indeed, played an important role in modeling Stand Your Ground legislation and voter ID laws that are widely viewed as a GOP ploy to disenfranchise minority and elderly voters.

Indeed, it was probably the ALEC hook that made the tale of a small Rhode Island city worthy of the Times' editorial pages.

But playing the ALEC card seems a bit cheap here. Brien is an unabashed conservative, with or without ALEC. And while the group may provide the legislator with a bit of intellectual succor, there's no evidence to suggest it had anything to do with Brien's decisionmaking on Woonsocket's finances.

I had to confront this question of ALEC's local influence myself when I wrote a lengthy piece, recently, about Rhode Island's passage of a voter ID bill. The Ocean State was the only one with a Democratically controlled legislature to pass such a bill last year and Brien was the driving force behind the legislation.

ALEC, then, might have provided a neat little story line - perhaps the behind-the-curtain work of an out-of-state interloper could explain Rhode Island's puzzling move. But as I've pointed out in this space, there's no evidence that ALEC had anything to do with the state's bill. The local measure was drafted before ALEC approved model voter ID legislation, after all, and it looks very different from the conservative group's bill.

Some enterprising reporter may yet find a link between ALEC and significant legislation passed (or killed) in this state. But so far, no such link exists. And to suggest as much is misleading, at best.

Postscript: Josh Barro offers his own critique of the Nocera column here.


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