OFF BASE Nocera.
Rhode Island's fiscal woes have attracted plenty of national press, much of it unflattering. But if the locals have grumbled a bit about the stories, they've been forced to concede their basic veracity.

This week's piece from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, though, misses the mark.

The column, "When ALEC Takes Over Your Town," focuses on the blue-collar city of Woonsocket, the latest Ocean State municipality to engage in a dangerous flirtation with bankruptcy.

The piece begins with the state Senate voting to impose a sizable property tax on the city in a bid at rescue — only to have a pair of conservative Woonsocket pols in the House, Representatives Jon Brien and Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, kill the measure in the waning hours of the legislative session.

The death of the property tax, Nocera writes, means the state may eventually appoint a receiver to the city — an unelected czar with the power to slash the budget and override union contracts with impunity.

The columnist, who focuses his ire on Brien, suggests the lawmaker is imposing unnecessary pain on his hometown in service of a conservative, small-government agenda.

It is, to this point, a reasonable critique. But then, Nocera verges into the conspiratorial: Brien, he suggests, is imposing the fiscal blueprint of the conservative, business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC has become an object of intense liberal scorn over the past year. And understandably so. The group played an important role in modeling the "Stand Your Ground" law central to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. And it also advocated for a string of voter ID bills, passed in eight states last year, that are widely viewed as a conservative ploy to disenfranchise minority and elderly voters.

Indeed, it is probably the ALEC hook that made the budget woes of a small Rhode Island city sexy enough for the Times' editorial pages.

But Brien, who serves on ALEC's national board, is an unabashed, bare-knuckled conservative, with or without the organization. And while ALEC may provide the representative with a bit of intellectual succor, there's no reason to believe it was orchestrating his maneuvers on Woonsocket's finances.

I had to confront this question of ALEC's local influence myself, recently, when I wrote an in-depth piece on how Rhode Island became the only state with a Democratic-controlled state legislature to approve a voter ID law last year (see "Who Passed Voter ID?," 5.18.12).

Brien was the driving force behind that measure. And ALEC would have provided a nifty story line — the shadowy, out-of-state interloper behind Rhode Island's head-scratching move.

But when I looked into it, there was simply no evidence that ALEC played a significant role. Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis drafted the state's voter ID bill, not Brien. The legislation was first filed with the General Assembly months before ALEC approved its own model voter ID measure. And the Rhode Island legislation looks quite different from the ALEC model; indeed, it is considered the most liberal voter ID law in the land.

Some enterprising reporter may yet find a link between ALEC and significant legislation passed (or killed) in Rhode Island. But so far, no such link exists. And it's irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: A bank robber downsizes, The urban chicken roost movement hits Rhode Island, You Snus you lose, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Rhode Island, New York Times, Woonsocket,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   LIBERAL WARRIOR  |  April 10, 2013
    When it comes to his signature issues — climate change, campaign finance reform, tax fairness — Whitehouse makes little secret of his approach: marshal the facts, hammer the Republicans, and embarrass them into action.
    A key Brown University oversight committee has voted to recommend the school divest from coal, delivering a significant victory to student climate change activists.
  •   HACKING POLITICS: A GUIDE  |  April 03, 2013
    Last year, the Internet briefly upended everything we know about American politics.
  •   BREAK ON THROUGH  |  March 28, 2013
    When I spoke with Treasurer Gina Raimondo this week, I opened with the obligatory question about whether she'll run for governor. "I'm seriously considering it," she said. "But I think as you know — we've talked about it before — I have little kids: a six-year-old, an eight-year-old. I'm a mother. It's a big deal."
  •   THE LIBERAL CASE FOR GUNS  |  March 27, 2013
    The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut spurred hope not just for sensible gun regulation, but for a more nuanced discussion of America's gun culture. Neither wish has been realized.

 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG