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.
OFF BASE Nocera.
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.