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Wine and Dine, Chew and Screw: ALEC's Influence and Ex-Gov McDonnell's Corruption Are the Same Darn Thing

A crowd of protesters gathered at the Arlington headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last week to demand that Dominion Resources, the parent of public utility monopoly Dominion Virginia Power, drop its membership in the right wing "bill mill."

On the very same day, a jury convicted ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges, setting off a new round of debate about Virginia's lax ethics laws.

The two news items sound like different topics, but in fact they are both about the corruption undermining our democratic system. The McDonnell trial, with its focus on swank vacations, golf clubs, designer clothes and other neat stuff, actually missed the bigger breach of public trust that goes on every day. This takes the form of unlimited corporate campaign contributions and gifts to members of both parties, and the influence over legislation purchased by this largesse.  

Dominion Power has spent decades and many millions of dollars building its influence in Richmond this way, to the point where most legislators don't bother pursuing a bill if the utility signals its opposition. That's why Virginia has not followed so many other states in requiring its utilities to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar. Economic arguments, jobs, electricity rates — all these are talked about in committee, and all are irrelevant to the fate of a bill. The only relevant question for legislators is, "What does Dominion think?"

What Dominion thinks, though, is not about what's good for its customers, but what's good for its own bottom line. And this is where ALEC comes in. Dominion Virginia Power's president, Bob Blue, sits on an ALEC committee with representatives from the climate-denial group Heartland Institute, the Koch-funded anti-environment group Americans for Prosperity, and that most oxymoronic of lobby shops, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Their purpose is to craft model state bills that protect fossil fuel profits and attack all efforts to regulate carbon emissions.

Dominion provides a straight shot from ALEC's back-room bill-brokering to Virginia's statute books, trampling environmental protections along the way and giving the lie to Dominion's façade of environmental responsibility. No wonder so many of last week's protesters were Dominion customers who objected to the utility using the money it charges them for electricity to pay its ALEC dues.

We see the result every year in the General Assembly, as bills drafted by ALEC pop up all over the place without attribution. In addition to attacking clean energy, ALEC bills oppose worker protections and minimum wage initiatives, promote stand-your-ground bills like the one at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, and of course, undermine the kinds of clean-government efforts that would reduce the influence of corporations, such as campaign finance reform.

And because the voters are the only people who could prove more powerful than corporations — and the only ones who might ultimately cut off the corporate cash flow — ALEC works to undermine voting rights as well.

In the wake of the McDonnells' convictions, Virginia legislators are once again mumbling about tightening up the rules on gifts. The discussion is half-hearted; the pay for their work is paltry and the hours are long, so they aren't anxious to give up the perks.

But it's too late for half-measures. Elected officials are going to have to subject themselves to a ban on gifts, and the prohibition should extend to ballgame tickets, golf getaways and sit-down dinners. The loophole that currently allows campaign funds to be used for personal use must also be closed to avoid an end-run around the gift ban.  

But until we turn off the corporate cash spigot, our democracy will still have special interests, not voters, calling too many shots.  

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