Common Sense and Civil Discourse in the Public Square.
February 2, 2023
Season 4 - Episode 2
ALEC: Guardians at the Gates
Over the last several elections, we have seen the vital role state legislators play in protecting our fundamental freedoms. State legislators are guardians protecting parental rights, religious liberties, education and economic freedom. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been one of their most important resources for half a century.
ALEC is both a networking and training resource for state legislators. ALEC is the nation’s largest nonpartisan voluntary membership organization for state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.
In this episode of Policy and Pound Cake, #TheBassSisters talk with Lisa Nelson who has served as CEO of ALEC for almost a decade.
Rich State Poor State
For 15 years, ALEC has provided a report card to determine the economic health of states. In addition to helping #TheBassSisters chart their retirement destination, the report reveals important factors about how model policies build strong conditions. The report Rich State Poor State ranks each state on 15 policy variables. Ultimately, states with policies focused on tax and spend measures fall at the bottom of the Rich State Poor State ranking.
Rank My Governor
How does your Governor rate? ALEC believes that even governors who have been dealt lousy hands such as long-devasted economies and uncooperative legislatures can rise above it by proposing positive economic policies, vetoing poor ones and exercising the power of the podium. Do you want to learn how your governor made the cut? Visit RankMyGovernor.org.
About Lisa Nelson:
Lisa B. Nelson is the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a 50-year-old nonprofit think tank dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. It is the largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators in the United States, and it counts nearly one-quarter of all state legislators and hundreds of business leaders and entrepreneurs as members.
For 16 years before leading ALEC, Lisa led government relations departments in the private sector at such companies as Visa and AOL Time Warner. Her work covered issues ranging from technology-based data security, privacy, financial services, and intellectual property in international, federal and state-based legislatures.
Prior to her time in the private sector, Lisa worked on Capitol Hill, where she served as Public Affairs Liaison for the U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998. As Executive Director of GOPAC in 1994, Lisa led the historic campaign effort that resulted in the first Republican Congressional Majority in more than 40 years.
Lisa has always had a keen eye towards media and new uses for hyper-relevant data, and as technology becomes more ubiquitous, her background in communications for the National Party Conventions has allowed her to stay on the cutting edge. While at National Review magazine, Lisa founded the National Review Institute. She continues to actively participate in organizations and foundations in Washington, D.C. and serves on the board of the State Financial Officers Foundation.
Lisa is a political science and international relations graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. She and her husband David live in McLean, Virginia and have two children, Sam Creed and Britton Elizabeth.
Policy & Pound Cake
Guest: Lisa Nelson
Lisa, I absolutely love that video of ALEC. Ummm, It's hard to believe ALEC was founded, you said, 50 years ago. Deana just celebrated her 50th birthday. But it was founded 50 years ago on the principles of limited government, federalism and free markets. How are those issues even more important today?
Well, I just love that you showed that video. Thank you so much, and I am so happy to be with you guys today. And your opening question is spot on because it is kind of the backbone and everything we live by. Limited government how that is important today, is just as important as it was 50 years ago, but we absolutely see examples every day whether government is mission creeping into our lives, whether it is our individual lives through prices and the cost of living for people, going to the grocery and additional taxes on things like that on our everyday items like gas and food, or whether its just that encroachment on policies at the federal level.
Federalism, the 3rd tenant of our three prongs, is all about that division of power. If there are decisions being made about your lives or my lives, they are being made close to us. They are being made by people who can understand the world we are living in. So making sure that division of power, meaning not Washington, DC making decisions for us but maybe our local chambers, maybe our local legislators in our state capitals are making that decision.
And then, finally, the free markets that is for us, something that is so inspirational and maybe even aspirational, I hope for everybody, and that is we believe that with competition and with a free market as opposed to some kind of prescribed notion of what the market should look like that competition will make every single person in the system rise and get better and force themselves be the best version of themselves. So Free market from an economic standpoint is one thing, but I think free market, from what I am talking about, is letting that competition thrive and letting us figure out what is the best solution for us, whether it is a policy-oriented decision or just a kitchen table decision we are going to make. Let us make that decision.
I really like that idea and I, we've been working in politics starting in Columbus, Georgia, our hometown. And we started when I was 12 and Deana 11, and when you used to talk about locals, Tip O'Neill famously said, "all things, all politics are local," and so... And what is ALEC doing to help and support at a local level?
Well, I'm glad that you asked that, and I love the fact that you're from Georgia, and you probably love having Governor Kemp in that video then, 'cause our annual meeting was in Atlanta, Georgia, this last year, which was so fun. We love that state, the Peach State. Tip O'Neill was right, and all politics are local, and what he meant about that and he and Ronald Reagan's famous bipartisan relationship that they had. They both knew that when you connect with the people at the local level, that's when you're really having success in what you're trying to do. And for ALEC, our members are made up of state legislators. Those are the state legislators, not the members of Congress, not the US senators. So they are the state legislators that go to your state capitals. And we also have something called ACE, the American City and County Exchange, which is city councils, county executives and local mayoral candidates. As a part of that, we call it kind of ALEC's little brother because we realized that as people are looking to try to achieve freedom in their lives and freedom from government, and as folks are trying to interject that government control, they'll try to do at the federal level, they'll try to do it at the state level.
They'll try to do it at the local level. I'm talking about issues as specific as who's regulating your broadband, who's making decisions on your education, so ACE is taking a look at those policies, making sure that we're trying to keep the burden on businesses and the burden on individuals as small as possible, and then ALEC is doing it at the state level in that state capital. And you might be going there in the future in this conversation, but these issues range from education to economics, to healthcare, to communications and technology, to civil justice, to criminal justice, even international relations. Interestingly enough, we have an international relations task force at ALEC because the states and localities have relationships and have mutually beneficial kinds of outcomes in working with local areas in other places around the world as well.
Wow. As Dee Dee mentioned, we started working in politics four decades ago at 12 and 11. I like saying that because it means she's older. But we also got a lot of training on our college campuses and as young college students being involved in campaigns and really learning from professors who were okay with the marketplace of ideas. Dee Dee has a 20-year-old son who's in college. Oh my gosh, I forget that he is 21 - and one of the things that concern us as we look at him, I'm a professional aunt with no kids. So as I look at my 15-year-old me and my 21-year-old nephew and the places where they are supposed to have the marketplace of ideas, freedom of expression, we feel like that area is being marginalized, and it's shrinking and shrinking. We were so excited to see that ALEC has a Center for free speech and it focuses on college campuses. Can you tell us a little bit about what that center does and how you're helping to advance the marketplace of ideas and free speech?
Sure, I got my start in politics on my college campus too. So love hearing that you guys. You know that. That's what inspired you, and That's what kind of motivated you. I grew up in California, Ronald Reagan was Governor when I was in the 70s and when I was in college in high school, and then he became president. As I was a student at UC Berkeley, and you talk about campus free speech, and Berkeley is the hotbed of all of the debates and things that are going on, but I think... Number one, I just wanna say how important it is as a student to engage at that level, and when you're younger and your mind is kind of being shaped, and you're thinking about what do I think about these issues, whether it is whether I feel free to make my own decisions or whether it's. I feel like my professor is free to say what he thinks, and I feel comfortable responding. This is the time. College is the time where you're really. That marketplace of ideas that you described, it's so important.
At our center to protect free speech, we're focused on a lot of things, but I will say that the campus free speech part, and particularly over the last couple of years, less so maybe in this coming year, but in the last few years, that has been really an important area to protect because I think that there's professors who at times don't feel like they can say what they believe for fear of being intimidated or being kicked out.
There's a model policy, and ALEC basically exists to develop model policy on these issues, and then that model policy is shared with legislators, and if they want to pass it in their states, they can. But we passed something that's a recommendation for different states called the Forum Act a couple of years ago. And the Forum Act basically essentially protects professors. So it's the legislation that would protect a professor from being intimidated or penalized for saying what he believes. It also creates free speech zones in eliminating these free speech zones because essentially you wanna make sure that people feel able to talk and believe and see what they want anywhere they want, and it also provides for education of the police force to make sure that if you've got enforcement if you need enforcement on your campuses, that the police force is educated and understands how to mitigate a situation.
It is huge, and I think that the center to protect free speech kind of ebbs and flows with what the cultural conversations that are taking place in the country.
There's also commercial free speech, which is just essentially making sure that businesses feel comfortable saying what they believe in. In the forty years that I've been in public policy, the speech issue has become a big question mark, and I know that conservatives and liberals both agree that free speech is a really important tenant of the American ideal, and making people protect that going forward is really important.
Yeah, you won't get any argument with us on that. We are huge supporters of those initiatives and that language because we obviously, in our own business, we're small business owners, and we are always inspired by companies, organizations that do have the courage to speak out, and I think we're in a position,
Even if we disagree, it's very important that everybody has the ability to say what they believe in what they think.
And in the workplace, we will say, we're gonna say it anyway, and I. If we have, If we're gonna lose clients to get prior to whatever, but we shutter when we think of people who actually lose their business, lose their ability to support their families because of policies that don't allow them to speak freely. So that's huge. One thing, we're sort of Dee Dee, and I are cross-between policy nerds, and we go on bunny trails. Well, I'm gonna tell you that as we were preparing for this interview, we went on a bunny trail with the resources that ALEC offers. We obviously have known about you for many, many years, our time and DC. I really wasn't aware of the volume of things that you publish.
What is it? Rich State Poor State.
We could be on the bunny trail now if we hadn't said, Okay, we gotta go because we gotta get ready for this interview because we were on a full bunny trail like,
Okay, where are we gonna retire? We're in the People's Republic of Maryland? So we were like, Okay, we can't retire here. So we love that resource. I would love for you to tell us about how you determine what states rise to the top and what states are in the kinda poor state category, but also other publications and other resources that just regular everyday Americans can dive and dive into your website.
Well, thank you for that question, and I'm laughing because our Rich States Poor States is basically, you call it, a premier publication of the organization. It's 15 years in the making. We've had 15 years of episodes or volumes of it, and I think that the answer to your question on retirement might be Utah, although Arizona is making a strong showing, and what we've done is essentially set up a list of criteria, and you can go to it on our website and kind of look at that criteria, but it is a methodical approach to that Art Laffer, Dr. Art Laffer, who's with Laffer and associates and has been an advisor to Republican presidents and Democrat presidents on near economics, he was a counselor and advisor to Governor Oh gosh, the California Governor Jerry Brown, that was a big democratic that cut taxes, but these criteria essentially have remained static. We've added a couple of things recently as a result of the pandemic and covid, but the criteria itself are outlined, and for the reason that we've kind of kept static is so that we're comparing apples to apples 15 years over and over again. And I think that's really important.
And what's happened in these 15 years is that the states are starting to pay attention to starting to see, and even in the news, you're seeing more and more reporters and folks talk about how many people left the state and how many move to the state and what the contributing factors are. And contrary to what we always have thought, it hasn't just been the sun. It's about your economic conditions and weather, and I used the word freedom earlier, but whether you're free to have that small business, whether you're free to send your kids to that school that you want, whether you got that freedom in your family decisions that you're making. We joke about Utah, but Utah has been number one for 15 years, which is striking. They have created an economic climate in their state. You could call it kind of a freedom index that is de-regulatory. If you wanna spark, start a business. If you want to send your kids to different schools if you are talking about competitive health care prices, all of those things they've built into their economy to make it affordable. And what's been really, really fun to watch in the nine years that I've been a CEO here is that competition between the states, believe it or not, we actually had a button that we have in our meetings, and it says, What's your state ranking question mark is a big red button that everybody wears, of course, the Utah guys all wear it 'cause they wanna rib all their fellow legislators, "what's your state ranking?" It kind of provokes and asks the question, well, what do I need to do to be in the top ten? What do we need to do as a state legislature to move our state up and Arizona in the last couple of years has asked that question and has responded, they brought themselves back to a 2.5 tax rate, flat tax rate in this last year.
And not only did they do that, we were talking about free speech and education a little bit earlier, they actually passed something called the education savings account, which means that all of your dollars that you pay in your taxes, whether you're a parent or not, but all of those dollars can move with the child. Some states call it the backpack dollars, some states call it the HOPE Scholarship. It essentially means that your money is fungible. It's like when you move, take your cell phone number with you now. It's a portable number. You don't wanna get a new number, this is basically saying you've paid this much money in your taxes to your state for your education of your kids or of children writ large, and we believe that you might have the choice that does not mean that the public schools are, it's not a knock on public schools, it just means I might think that for my child, this school is better than that school were on arts and music, and my child is more eccentric in that way and would really thrive in that.
This is so interesting to me. These things that you are describing for this index. Are there states that are stubborn because we see states that continue to? I guess my question really is, if we see that these things work, why isn't everyone doing it?
It's befuddling, isn't it? It really is like you kind of say to yourself, what's wrong with you guys? I will say that invariably, like Utah and Arizona and North Carolina or Indiana, or often in the top 10, Utah always being number one. I don't know if they're gonna be number one this year, but there are some states that are always in the bottom and New York... No surprise there. California, unfortunately, my great state of California, and I think it's a different philosophy around thinking that... It's pretty simple thinking that government is the answer as opposed to individuals, and if you look at what happened even in the recent pandemic, the states that place a value on freedom, and the states that said, You know what? We think that you can make a decision about the safety of your family and your business, we're not gonna close the schools or we're not gonna... Obviously, we're gonna work within the constraints that we have, but in the administration approach, it was kind of a top-down approach of we're gonna set a vision of safety and everything else, but we're gonna let the states decide, I thought it was a really locally executed state, the money came down from the federal government, but then it was locally executed, and when you look.
I don't know if you've gone down your rabbit hole on the different states, but interestingly, Georgia opened up early and didn't close its schools for long periods of time, and in fact, has done really, really well. Or everybody knows about the Florida example. Now, Florida has the benefit of being a Sunshine State where you could be outside and all of that. But even South Dakota, which you know that's not really a warm state throughout those winter months followed the lead of Florida and Georgia and said, "You know what, I'm gonna let, my state open up. I'm gonna let people make decisions. I'm gonna really focus on where I need to make sure that we keep people safe, which is maybe in the senior citizen homes and things like that."
Governor Reynolds also did a really, really good job, she was really methodical about how she approached her response and looked at the different zones of her state and basically said, You know what, this whole region here is a lot more populated and they're doing this and we're gonna follow this approach, and this is more rural, and we're gonna follow this approach, so sometimes those cookie-cutter answers aren't exactly what's best for you at the local level.
So that's the rich states for states, and some of those other things that we're doing, take a look at that and really, really encourage the states to compete against each other in a friendly manner, but also so that each one of them can get better and it's unfortunate for those states that really haven't gotten the message yet.
Well, I'm hoping that Arizona really gets out there because Arizona is warm, and I could see retiring in Arizona. I could do UTAH. I could do an Arizona team first.
Yeah, I was gonna say my first choice would probably be Arizona, but I could do Utah,
Are either of you guys golfers or tennis players or anything like that?
I am a much better putter than my husband is. We live in a golf course community, and he loves
to golf, as soon as it's 50 degrees, he's out on the golf course.
So that's how I am. There's criteria of where I would retire. And it's like, Are there good restaurants? Are there smart people? And are there golf courses and tennis courses? So one other thing you mentioned about publications, I don't wanna just leave it at Rich States Poor States, we do have an education report card where we rank the different states around their state of education, clearly what I was talking about in this choice and the education savings accounts The Hope Scholarships would factor into that freedom, again, of being able to make decisions, like I would say, especially when I look at... I've used this example before, but I still can't get over it. And your audience may really appreciate this, but you know Ron DeSantis got elected in Florida four years ago, forget the recent re-election, but he got elected with about just a 2% margin. And there was an article in the Wall Street Journal that just totally struck me. And it was that his percentage among single black mothers was made the difference in his vote now. Wow. There's a whole coalition of women who... African-American women who love Ron DeSantis down in Florida because they feel like they were given that opportunity to make a decision for their child, and that was the difference.
It was that 2%. And I think that we often times get lost in what really matters in politics, and we here on TV and what the media is kind of spoon-feeding us, but the fact of the matter is, if you're a single parent and you wanna educate your child, or if you are trying to figure out a better life for your family, you're gonna look at things like, well, how much does it cost? What's my cost of living? And what is it that's gonna make a difference and get me or my children in a situation where they're better off than I was, that was that old question back in the Reagan days, "Are you better off? Do you think you're gonna be better off than your parents are?" That used to be every decade, the answer was, "Yes, yes," because America was thriving and growing, and I think that we need to get back to that kind of positioning because I think that's what's gonna help us figure out what is it we need to do to stay competitive as a country. We have that Rich States Poor States publication, but maybe there should be rich countries, poor countries to recognize how great this country is and to kinda see that the way our system runs with that freedom and that kind of democratic process is what's best for the for the whole world. If we can just get to that place.
I am going to have to say Amen to that... Absolutely. Well Lisa this has been so much fun. But before we let you go we have a very important question to ask you. When you are sitting around talking about policy, what is your favorite dessert?
What was my favorite dessert? Well that's super easy, a chocolate torte. I am a big, I know you have politics and pound cake, and maybe I should have said pound cake, but my go-to dessert is chocolate torte. I have a little square of dark chocolate every afternoon at about 4:00 o'clock.
Lisa, I love dark chocolate all the way.
Well, I personally like milk chocolate, but you can never go wrong with chocolate.
Dark chocolate is a little healthier than what I want to eat. If I am going to eat chocolate, I am not looking for the health factor, which is what my husband and sister are always saying. You can never go wrong with chocolate.
A little red wine goes well with chocolate too.
Lisa, thank you so much. We have really enjoyed this and so much wonderful information. ALEC and your team are doing a phenomenal job.