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Walter Jones Columnist

Published Saturday, October 13, 2012

Georgia leaders get ideas from same well

Here’s a trick question for you.

Who said, “The prisons are for people we’re afraid of, and we’re filling them with people we’re mad at”?

Was it Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or some other Georgia politician during debate on this year’s criminal-sentencing reform legislation?

It’s actually a quote from a 2009 presentation at the American Legislative Exchange Council at the beginning of a discussion about how conservatives can address shrinking state budgets and rising prison populations. What may have tripped you up is that Georgia conservatives like Deal, Ralston and Cagle used nearly identical words in describing the proposal here. An appointed commission spent months considering the issue, but its recommendations were strikingly similar to the ALEC presentation of saving money on prisons by relaxing the sentences for petty crimes and drug offenses.

ALEC is the well conservative leaders in Georgia dip their bucket into when they’re looking for ideas.

When Sonny Perdue was governor, he took an ALEC concept called the 65 Percent Solution and pushed it through the General Assembly. It requires schools spend at least 65 percent of their budgets in the classroom and no more than 35 percent on administration.

Dozens of school boards have won waivers from the law because expenses like school buses, libraries and lunchrooms are counted as administration. Many education advocates are calling for repeal of the law, arguing that experience has shown that adhering to it has done nothing to improve student performance.

Despite its influence, ALEC only entered the media spotlight recently. Liberals began organizing boycotts of the consumer-products companies that provided funding, but it only convinced many like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Kraft to stop when ALEC was tied to “stand your ground” laws like the one George Zimmerman used in his defense for shooting Trayvon Martin.

The liberals’ initial complaint was that ALEC was the original source of state laws around the country requiring photo IDs to vote and citizenship verification to register, restrictions liberals say are designed to suppress Democratic turnout and that conservatives say will stop voter fraud.

The companies generally were less concerned with voter laws than they were with giving their lobbyists and executives access to the legislators from around the country who attend ALEC conferences so they could advocate for things impacting their products directly.

To counter ALEC, a mirror organization called ALICE, or American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, seeks to arm liberals with their own ideas and arguments against conservative proposals. It’s a clearinghouse of local ordinances and state legislation introduced by liberals across the country.

Since Georgia has such a conservative legislature and many of its leaders are ALEC participants, it’s a safe bet that ALEC will have more influence here than ALICE.

So, what sort of ideas is ALEC generating that could show up when it’s time to file bills ahead of January’s start of the General Assembly?

-- The Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act that guarantees patients the ability to purchase medical treatment directly without having to buy health insurance.

-- The Phantom Damages Elimination Act which would limit the awards in lawsuits for personal injury to the actual money paid for medical treatment, not the list price. So, if the accident victim gets a discount, juries would have to take that into account.

-- An appointed “center of excellence” panel on privatization which would examine all aspects of state government for services that can be contracted out for companies to perform.

-- The Jury Patriotism Act which would create a fund to compensate people who would otherwise be excused from jury duty on long trials because of financial hardship. Supposedly, many conservatives who are self-employed aren’t on juries to balance out liberal jurors, resulting in large lawsuit awards and lax treatment of criminals.

-- The Private Attorney Retention Sunshine Act which would require competitive bidding when the government contracts with private lawyers on a contingency-fee basis, such as pension funds or authorities or even the attorney general. The concern is that a profit motive will prompt legal sharks will prey on corporations for their government clients.

There’s no guarantee that all of these bills will get introduced, and it’s certain that others offered by ALEC will.

Other groups influence Georgia’s conservative leaders, such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. It takes keeping an eye on all of them to accurately predict what will be on the legislative agenda, but ALEC may be the source of more bills than any of the others.

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