PORTLAND, Oregon, Jun 28 2016 (IPS) - For many years, as a reporter, including for IPS, I wrote about the dominance of a giant, corporate-funded lobbying organization called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), on public policy in the United States.
In recent years, public uproar about the influence of ALEC resulted in campaigns for major corporations to divest from ALEC. Several major corporations did pull out, although the wealthy Koch brothers and many corporations still provide ALEC with millions of dollars every year.
ALEC takes some of the most regressive, harmful ideas and puts them into the form of draft laws, or model bills, for Republican-led State Legislatures to adopt – one after another, after another.
Whether laws to make it harder to vote, or to privatize education and privatize prisons, or require U.S. families receiving food assistance to take drug tests, ALEC has provided the templates for one U.S. state after another to replicate these ideas into law.
Well, in 2013, I began to study law at Gonzaga University, and in 2014, I wrote a Model Bill for something called Affordable Housing Impact Statements.
Specifically, the bill requires cities and counties to prepare an “Impact Statement” every time they consider any decision that would have an impact on the amount of affordable housing in that city or county.
This Model Ordinance took an idea that had been successful in two cities–San Diego, California; and Austin, Texas–and added some new features, including a Scorecard to keep track of how many housing units would be added or subtracted at each income level.
I worked with the City of Atlanta, Georgia, which adopted it in November 2015, and am now working with four other cities–New Orleans, Louisiana; Los Angeles, California; Albany, New York; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–which are also considering it.
With the rapid success of the model bill in so many cities, it occurred to me that this was the work of a progressive alternative to ALEC – and wouldn’t it be funny if we called it SMART ALEC?
It is supposed to be a “smart” alternative to ALEC. [In the U.S., the term “smart aleck” refers comically to someone who behaves as if they know everything – so the name SMART ALEC has a double meaning that amuses people.]
SMART ALEC stands for State and Municipal Action for Results Today / Agenda for Legislative Empowerment and Collaboration.
So, in March 2016, I created the new nonprofit organization, and am serving as CEO. The Board of Directors now includes Dr. Dwanda Farmer, one of the nation’s few PhDs in Community Development; Barbara Payne, former director of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation; and Christian Seppa, an activist.
Not only do we intend to promote progressive policies around the environment and affordable housing–basically the opposite of what ALEC promotes–we intend to do it in a way that is completely transparent and participatory.
We want to take back “lobbying” as a positive word.
In the United States, where vast concentration of wealth and corporate power has caused the average citizen to feel disempowered, as if they cannot make a difference in democracy, the word “lobbyist” has become a synonym for “devil.”
But we cannot let them have this word! Just because corporations have become so adept at pushing their regressive, conservative proposals using the democratic process, so must we citizens become adept as doing the same.
SMART ALEC’s goal is to empower low-income, homeless, and marginalized people to make a meaningful difference in shaping, and advocating for, policy solutions.
The urgency of our environmental crises and affordable housing crises require that we work quickly to take the best solutions at the local levels of cities and states, and quickly replicate them.
Every day we are looking at the solutions being produced by civil society from all regions of the country; and we are inspired also by the bold solutions being pursued by our fellow “smart alecks” on every continent.
There is great experimentation happening, but we cannot experiment forever – so, let’s copy; paste; repeat.