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Secretive 'bill mill' gets local foothold

March 21, 2015

An offshoot of the American Legislative Exchange Council that aims to influence local government is making inroads in Indiana.

The American City County Exchange, which launched about a year ago, has 22 members from eight Indiana counties, including Marion and Hamilton, making Indiana one of its “stronger” states, Director Jon Russell said.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, promotes federalism, limited government and free markets through model legislation. The organization draws fire from the left—which calls it a corporate “bill mill”—with its positions on issues like climate change and gun rights.

Government watchdogs also say ALEC’s meetings provide a way for corporate members to push their agendas on state lawmakers in secret.

Indeed, ALEC’s secrecy is carrying over to the American City County Exchange. Russell would not name the Indiana members, or the local government entities to which they are elected. ACCE has about a dozen corporate members, he said, but he would not name them.

“Our private sector members are think tanks, corporations and trade organizations in the energy, travel, public works, public safety, technology and commercial sectors,” Russell said in an email.

He said the public-sector members are from city and county jurisdictions in Hamilton and Marion counties, as well as Jackson, Allen, Jefferson, Floyd, Harrison and Monroe.

Sandlin Sandlin

Jack Sandlin, a Republican member of the Indianapolis City-County Council, said he joined ACCE last year because he was looking for ways to learn more about national issues, such as pension costs, that might come before the council

“As a part-time councilor, sometimes it’s hard for us to find good information,” he said.

Sandlin said that, as far as he knows, he’s the only ACCE member on the council, but he’s talking to others about joining.

ALEC is so influential at the Statehouse that lawmakers view it as akin to a public-sector membership organization like the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Julia Vaughn, Indiana lobbyist for Common Cause, which promotes open government.

“It’s not good to hear their tentacles will reach even further here in the state,” Vaughn said.

So far, the American City County Exchange has drafted model policies on only two issues: piping material used in waterworks projects and union membership. The latter is for states that haven’t passed right-to-work laws and has been successful in several counties in Kentucky, Russell said. (Indiana became a right-to-work state in 2012.)

The annual meeting in San Diego in July will probably result in more model policies, Russell said.

Piping material is a hot issue in the world of public works. The most common material across the country is ductile iron, but, Russell said, it’s expensive and subject to corrosion. There are other types of material that meet engineering standards, he said.

Indiana saw a Senate bill in 2014 that would have required specifications for all public works projects that involve piping material to include any product that meets professional standards, and the bill specifically mentioned PVC. The bill, which died in committee, was supported by the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Prosperity but opposed by the American Consulting Engineers Council of Indiana, which argued that it would usurp professional judgment.

ACCE’s model policy is the “Open and Fair Competition Resolution for Municipal [or Local] Water and Wastewater Projects.” The resolution is to “ensure that all proven and acceptable piping materials be included in all bids for water and wastewater projects.”

Public works projects can prompt intense lobbying at the local level. When Hamilton County was preparing to extend 146th Street to Interstate 69, asphalt and concrete interests lobbied county commissioners to use their material on the project, commission member Christine Altman said.

The commission turned to the Indiana Department of Transportation for data on durability and efficiency and chose asphalt for most of the road.

“If we are heavily lobbied, we will go to an evidence-based decision,” Altman said.

Hamilton County Surveyor Kent Ward, who has jurisdiction over all storm-water drainage projects, said he knows “the plastic pipe people” want to see bidding specifications changed to include a plastic product, but for the most part Hamilton County uses reinforced concrete.

Industry drives local-government procurement or regulation in other ways, and Sandlin said that’s not necessarily problematic. In firefighting, for example, equipment makers and firefighters work together on designs and standards, he said. “You’re always seeing these standards shift and change. A lot of that’s driven by those collaborations.”•

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