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Conservatives Plot Their Course On The Rising ‘Sea Of Red’ In State Capitals

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Shortly after the November election, with the nation’s political attention focused on the Trump transition, an influential advocacy group met outside Washington to discuss how to leverage the extraordinary shift of power to Republicans in the rest of the country.

The American Legislative Exchange Council — a nonprofit better known as ALEC — briefed its members and allied groups on the bright future for its agenda now that Republicans will effectively control 68 of the nation’s 99 state legislative bodies, as well as 33 governor’s mansions. Among other things, group members said they would push bills to reduce corporate taxes, weaken unions, privatize schooling and influence the ideological debate on college campuses.

“We can pretty much do whatever we want to right now,” said Rep. Jim DeCesare, a Republican state legislator in Kentucky, where the party gained the state House for the first time in nearly a century.

DeCesare, who had been minority whip, described plans for “a pretty intense agenda” including a so-called right-to-work law allowing employees who are covered by collective bargaining agreements to opt out of joining labor unions. Another, he said, would be repealing rules that require government contractors to pay employees more than the minimum wage. Neighboring states competing for new businesses, he said, had already gutted such regulations.

“We’ve got some catching up to do, but we plan to make up a lot of ground in a very short time,” DeCesare said. “This is our time to shine.”

Another ALEC official, Michael Bowman, told the group that outside advocates, not lawmakers, held the key to success. “Legislators are not the trailblazers of developing policies,” Bowman said. “They’re actually the retail consumers.”

ALEC, founded in 1973, acts as a clearinghouse for business-friendly model bills. Among its major donors are the billionaires Charles and David Koch. Members include corporations and their lobbyists, along with hundreds of legislators who work together to craft free-market legislation offered in many states at once. The group has successfully advanced bills imposing voter ID rules and loosening labor and environmental regulations.

Because the group generally allies with Republicans, November’s results provide the best chance yet to turn its ideas into law. In Iowa, for example, the party regained dominance in the state Senate, winning a trifecta of both chambers and the governorship for the first time in almost two decades. Republicans expanded their lead in the Pennsylvania Senate to a two-thirds majority, large enough to threaten to override vetoes by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. Even in North Carolina, where Democrat Roy Cooper eked out a win for governor, Republicans retained their veto-proof majorities in the legislature, where lawmakers have pushed through a series of controversial laws, including one that rolled back protections for transgender people using public bathrooms. The number of states where Republicans control both the legislature and the governor’s office will rise from 23 to 25. The total number of Republican legislators nationwide also has grown.

The post-election lunch meeting, held Nov. 17 at the organization’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, included members of ALEC and other conservative groups, with some calling into a private conference line. Ashley Varner, a strategic communications director at ALEC, opened the session by pointing out that with the power shift in Washington, opportunities at the state level were flying under the radar. “There’s a sea of red,” Varner said, adding that hundreds of incumbents from both parties had been ousted. “What are we going to do with these new legislatures?’

Inez Feltscher, director of ALEC’s education task force, outlined plans to advocate for legislation giving money to parents who take their children out of public schools — stipends they could use for private schooling or other educational expenses. Critics of these “education savings accounts” say they’re a drain on public-school funding, while proponents argue they give parents a chance to pick the best situation for their kids.

Feltscher acknowledged another motivation: “To break the monopoly on one of the most important institutions in America.” Conservatives have long been at odds with teachers unions over the structure and curriculum of public schools. “We’ve let the left take over almost all of the cultural institutions of this country,” she said.

Another ALEC target, Feltscher said, would be the state of “free debate on American universities,” which conservatives say are largely dominated by left-leaning faculty, courses and speakers. For example, she said, lawmakers could use a range of tactics to press administrators to include multiple ideologies during on-campus public policy talks, such as demanding an annual count of campus events that included more than one perspective. Simply requiring measurement and public reporting would apply pressure, she said, but legislators could also take it to “the nuclear level” and threaten to pull funding from schools that are perceived to be limiting discourse.

“There’s going to be a lot more aggression on this,” Feltscher said.

ALEC executives also forecasted tax cuts and other conservative fiscal reforms in New Hampshire, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia. Jonathan Williams, vice president of ALEC’s Center for State Fiscal Reform, reminded the group that one of the only Republican majorities lost in November came in Nevada, where taxes had been raised.

Williams acknowledged the presidential campaign was “a little light on policy details” but said he was optimistic the Trump administration would follow the states’ lead. “The stars have aligned,” Williams said.

Bowman, who is ALEC’s vice president of policy, said the change in Washington might benefit ALEC’s fight to preserve anonymity for donors to politically active nonprofit groups at the state level. With Trump in office, Democrats might now start to see the value of this privacy. “Democrats who are afraid of the Republican administration are beginning to say ‘Maybe we need to embrace some First Amendment rights,’” Bowman said.

Contacted for comment, Varner, the ALEC communications director, said the organization’s optimism is based not on expanded Republican control, but rather voter discontent with the status quo, regardless of party. DeCesare, the Kentucky lawmaker, responded with an email stating he didn’t attend the meeting. Varner, however, confirmed that DeCesare had called into the meeting on the conference line.

This week, some of the promises DeCesare made during the ALEC meeting began to materialize, with a Kentucky House committee approving a “right to work” bill and another to roll back the prevailing wage rule.

Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist, said the Republican resurgence will have a major impact on important policies across the country. He expects most of the changes to percolate out of formerly split states where the GOP has now taken total control — like Kentucky — rather than in states with longstanding Republican majorities.

“Those are the states where there’s just a lot of pent-up demand, a lot of unhappiness with the status quo,” he said. “The people who have been waiting to make those changes can now implement them.”

Voss said that shifts in political control after years of stability often produce a period of dramatic policy innovation.

“And what we know about public policy is it spreads,” Voss said. “Other states will pick up their innovations, good or bad.”

IMAGE: Flickr/Kumar Appaiah

How Tillerson Created The (False) Impression He Supports Climate Action

Donald Trump’s unorthodox selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state touched off a flurry of stories about how an engineer from humble beginnings rose through company ranks to become one of the world’s most powerful corporate titans, negotiating with potentates and presidents in dozens of countries spanning the globe.

Much of the coverage has focused on Tillerson’s chummy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has raised eyebrows among Democrats and Republicans alike, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio. Tillerson’s bromance with the Russian strongman, however, has largely overshadowed another major area of concern: ExxonMobil’s leading role in promoting climate science denial and blocking government efforts to address global warming.

Instead of exploring those issues, many news organizations have accepted at face value statements Tillerson and his lieutenants have made about company climate policy. A closer look, however, shows that while Tillerson may talk the talk, when it comes to walking, he’s heading in the wrong direction.

As a number of reporters have noted, Tillerson — unlike his crusty predecessor Lee Raymond — acknowledges that climate change is a problem. “At ExxonMobil,” Tillerson said in May at a conference in Washington, D.C., “we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.”

That sounds promising, right? But Tillerson followed that statement by noting that more than a billion people around the world lack access to electricity, living in what he called a state of “energy poverty.” Cutting back on fossil fuels, Tillerson said, would condemn them to a life of deprivation. His solution: more fossil fuels, especially natural gas. As he has said on other occasions when addressing the same topic: “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Tillerson also routinely disparages well-established climate models, insisting they are inaccurate, and recommends societies learn how to adapt to sea level rise and other consequences of global warming instead of trying to reduce carbon emissions.

“Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that,” he said during a talk at the Council of Foreign Relations in June 2012. “It’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions. …The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this [carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels], I do not accept.”

Tillerson reiterated his disdain for climate science before a much larger audience the following March. During an hour-long interview on PBS’ Charlie Rose, he emphasized uncertainty — exactly what ExxonMobil did after its own scientists warned upper management in the late 1970s about the potential for climate catastrophe. “We have continued to study this issue for decades,” he told Rose. “… With all of that [new data, better models, and more competent analysis], though, the facts remain there are uncertainties around the climate, climate change, why it’s changing, what the principal drivers of climate change are.”

Social scientists call that “manufacturing doubt.” That’s just what the tobacco industry did to stave off tighter government controls on its product despite the fact the science linking smoking to cancer and other diseases was conclusive — just as climate science is today.

Stories about Tillerson’s nomination in The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times and other publications have uncritically repeated ExxonMobil’s hollow assertion that it endorses a carbon tax. As I have previously pointed out, Tillerson first claimed to back a revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2009 in a cynical attempt to derail congressional approval of a rival approach — a market-based, cap-and-trade system — that was gaining ground at the time. In fact, a cap-and-trade bill did pass narrowly in the House, only to die later in the Senate.

Not only was Tillerson undoubtedly aware back then that a carbon tax had virtually no political support, since 2009 ExxonMobil’s friends on Capitol Hill have made sure that no carbon tax bill will ever see the light of day. There have been a handful of nonbinding carbon tax resolutions in recent years, however, and the overwhelming majority of ExxonMobil-funded senators and representatives consistently voteagainst it. Meanwhile, the company has ignored members of Congress who have actually sponsored carbon tax legislation. Earlier this year, for instance, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz — who get no financial support from ExxonMobil — introduced a revenue-neutral carbon tax bill. Did they hear from the company? No.

“Regarding ExxonMobil’s alleged seven years of support for a carbon fee, we’ve seen no meaningful evidence of that,” the senators said in a letter they sent to the company in August. “None of the top executives that make up ExxonMobil’s management team has expressed interest in meeting with any of us to discuss the Whitehouse-Schatz proposal or any carbon fee legislation.”

In an otherwise critical editorial on Trump’s pick for secretary of state, The New York Times applauded Tillerson for pulling the plug on climate science denier groups. “On a positive note,” the paper of record opined, “Mr. Tillerson has reversed Exxon Mobil’s long history of funding right-wing groups that denied the threat of global warming, and he could perhaps persuade Mr. Trump not to pull out of the landmark Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In fact, Tillerson did not completely pull that plug. Despite company denials, ExxonMobil has continued to spend millions of dollars on denier groups since Tillerson took over the tiller in 2006. Outed by a 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the company spent more than $18.6 million from 1998 — a year before it merged with Mobil — through 2005 on more than 40 think tanks and advocacy organizations. The company did drop some deniers from its roster in response to negative publicity, but from 2006 through 2015, it spent another $14.3 million on its climate disinformation network. Sixteen groups received ExxonMobil funding last year, and 10 of them — including the American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Federalist Society and Hoover Institution — were listed in the 2007 UCS report.

As for the Times‘ hope that Tillerson, as secretary of state, could persuade Trump to uphold the Paris climate accord, it’s not clear he would try. After all, his company stands to profit handsomely if it fails.

It is true that ExxonMobil endorsed the agreement, at least on paper. A close reading of the company’s statement of support, however, suggests that it hinges on whether its own agenda is satisfied.

After calling the accord “an important step forward by world governments” and insisting that ExxonMobil “has a constructive role to play in developing solutions,” the statement urges policymakers to reduce carbon emissions “at the lowest cost to society, keeping in mind that access to affordable and reliable energy is critical to economic growth and improved standards of living worldwide.”

Ensuring worldwide access to energy is a not-so-veiled reference to Tillerson’s pet energy poverty argument, and as we know, his solution for the developing world is to buy more of what his company sells.

The statement’s conclusion, meanwhile, is especially ironic. It declares the best policy option to meet the challenges of curbing carbon and providing energy to all is — you guessed it — a carbon tax, which the company has been working overtime to make sure never happens.

When senators begin to weigh the pros and cons of Tillerson as the nation’s top diplomat a few weeks from now, they need to take into account the fact that he has spent his entire professional career at a corporation whose foreign policy is not only often at odds with U.S. interests, but one that has done more than any other oil company over the last two decades to spread climate science disinformation and prevent urgently needed government action. If they take the confirmation process seriously — and consider the harm Tillerson has inflicted on the planet to protect ExxonMobil’s bottom line — they will reject him. Let him retire next year with his $69.5 million pension and $218 million in company stock. He’ll be fine — and hopefully won’t be able to do any more damage.

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Columbia Journalism Review, The Hill and many other publications.

IMAGE: ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks at  an energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.  REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo

The New ‘Founder’ — Brought To You By The Koch Brothers

When you think of America’s great Constitutional originators, names like Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton and Franklin come to mind. And, of course, Abbott.

This past January, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the multimillionaire protege of the Koch brother’s Plutocratic Kingdom and American Legislative Exchange Council darling, revealed to a startled nation that he has penned not one but NINE new amendments to the Constitution of the USA. Forget the Bill of Rights, Abbott is proposing a Bill of Sale, effectively transferring the title of our national government from The People to The Plutocrats. The upshot of his “tweaks” would be outlawing government actions that restrain corporate abuse of workers and consumers, while also preventing future Congresses from meeting crucial public needs such as health care, voter rights, and restoration of our national infrastructure.

One could call Abbott and his Founding Father pretentious and ludicrous – which both are – but he’s not the force behind this diabolical, ideological tampering with our Constitution and our people’s ideals of fairness and justice. ALEC, at the direction of the Kochs and their corporate cohorts, wrote this Bill of Sale.

Convening an explosive convention, permitted under Article V of the Constitution, is a longtime dream of those elites seeking an American Kochistan, and ALEC is spearheading a hodgepodge of right-wing groups that — believe it or not — are alarmingly close to succeeding. An ALEC/Koch affiliate with the cumbersome acronym of BBATF (Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force) came out of the Tea Party maelstrom in 2010 and is now aggressively pushing governors and state legislatures to endorse such an Article V convention. At the convention, they would attempt to rewrite our nation’s fundamental governing document by adding a balanced budget amendment, along with Abbott’s other eight. Together these changes would enthrone the “moneyed corporations” that Jefferson and other founders abhorred as destroyers of America’s democratic possibilities.

Absurd? Of course. Even the late Phyllis Schlafly who was the head of the right-wing Eagle Forum, called this push “a prescription for political chaos,” adding, “Alas, I don’t see any George Washingtons, James Madisons, Ben Franklins, or Alexander Hamiltons around who could do as good a job as the Founding Fathers, and I’m worried about the men who think they can.”

Well, ALEC and the Kochs sure do think they can. But their diabolical schemes don’t stop with Gov. Abbott and changing our constitution, they want to take over our country’s entire political system. Having already spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get their policy pushing puppets like Abbott into office, the Koch’s want to bend the will of the people as well. They recently started a new program that they call Grassroots Leadership Academy that gives how-to lessons in everything from mounting successful protest actions to recruiting middle-of-the-road voters.

Using Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” they are training thousands of people to become organizers and political activists. This so-called “grassroots” outfit has been set up by the gabillionaire Koch boys to train cadres of right-wing corporatists to spread their ideological laissez-fairydust across the land. The academy is run through Americans for Prosperity, Charlie’s and Davie’s political wing, which put up $3 million to get it going. About 10,000 people have gone through some of the training sessions in three dozen states. The brothers’ grandiose scheme is to take over the Republican Party and use it as their tool to rebuild America itself into a Kochlandia, ruled by the superrich.

The academy’s curriculum is loaded with such corporate nonsense as a course titled “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” Attendees are indoctrinated with two overarching lessons: (1) freewheeling corporate power — unrestrained by labor, environmental or other public protections — GOOD; (2) Social Security, unemployment benefits, and other social programs — BAAAAAAD!

Koch Kollege for right-wing social engineers is peddling a status quo agenda of corporate elitism and trickle-down ideology, which the vast majority of Americans have openly rebelled against. It’s like trying to sell chicken salad made out of chicken manure.

IMAGE: Texas Governor Greg Abbott/Gage Skidmore via Flickr.com

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of the book Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow (Wiley, March 2008). He publishes the monthly Hightower Lowdown, co-edited by Phillip Frazer.