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Massachusetts' Blueprint to Fight Legislature Extremism is Lesson for Nation

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Article in Springfield Republican / Mass Live

By Robert Weiner and Eric Alves

For over thirty years, the tax-exempt American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has stood in the shadows, pushing state legislatures across the country to move policies to the extreme right on voter suppression, women's reproductive health choices, and gerrymandering.

It would be easy to say that Massachusetts has stopped conservative advances such as ALEC's because the state's voters are left-leaning Democrats. However, the myth that Massachusetts is predictably liberal Democratic is simply not true. Since 1990, Massachusetts voters have sent five Republicans to the governor's corner office -- Weld, Cellucci, Swift, Romney, and Baker. During the 1980 and 1984 Presidential Elections, Republican icon Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts.

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Although state legislatures do not receive the same media exposure as their national counterparts, their impact is immense. In addition to generating an overall conservative thrust, ALEC's control of state legislatures resulted in bills passed in the last legislative session in thirty states squeezing opportunities away from minorities, youth, women, and immigrants. Nationwide, 1,810 state legislators are members of ALEC, 24 percent of state legislators. Only four of the 200 members of the Massachusetts General Court -- 2% -- are ALEC members.

How has Massachusetts accomplished maintaining an even-keeled state legislature?

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One possible answer is that Massachusetts has ranked as the number one education system in the nation "for the seventh year running", according to the Education Week Research Center, which looked at indicators such as preschool and kindergarten enrollment, high school graduation rates and higher education. The Commonwealth has nearly 97% of individuals between the age of 16 and 19 enrolled in high school or graduated, compared to the national average of 80%. ALEC's issues never include expanding education funding. Knowledge is power. You get what you pay for. Last year (2014) the state's education funding averaged $14,142 per student, while the Commonwealth only received $1,176 per student from the federal government.

With outstanding institutions like UMass, Smith, Amherst, Harvard, Mt. Holyoke, Springfield College, Hampshire College, AIC, Williams and Northeastern located in the state -- and a college student population of over 30,000 in Western Massachusetts' four counties (Hampshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Berkshire) -- Massachusetts has a highly educated adult population.

According to the Census Bureau, Massachusetts has 39.1% of adults with at least a bachelor's degree, the highest in the nation. The state also has 16.8% adults with a graduate or professional degree, also tops. When comparing Massachusetts to perhaps the most ALEC-influenced Mississippi, the success of education is even more evident, with Mississippi ranked 50th in education, the lowest high school graduate percentage in the nation, and only 19.8% of adults holding a bachelor's degree -- half the percentage of Massachusetts.

ALEC maintains a chokehold through direct access for private corporate entities to lawmakers. The group's corporate issues "experts" draft legislation which supportive state lawmakers introduce for debate and ram through.

Despite this control of lawmakers in other places, Massachusetts has led the nation in fighting extremists' outreach and established a blueprint for states to follow. By having colleges and high schools superior to most every state, Massachusetts created an electorate that can think for itself.

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It's even in the state Constitution. Under Chapter 5, Section 2, Massachusetts is required to support education for residents because "wisdom and knowledge" is "necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties." Moreover, "spreading the opportunities and advantages of education... shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods in this Commonwealth." Massachusetts passed a landmark bipartisan education reform bill in 1993, which increased spending, raised student assessment standards and made license exams for new teachers more exacting.

Location matters. Mitt Romney became a conservative national candidate for President supporting ALEC's positions against ObamacCare and immigration reform. Yet earlier, as Governor of Massachusetts, he could not be that conservative and was largely progressive, including passing RomneyCare in 2006.

A study conducted last year by the personal finance social network WalletHub, examining voter registration, turnout, political contributions, and civic education, found that voters in Massachusetts were the most politically engaged. With the country's most studious electorate, officials are effectively prevented from going against the will of their constituents.

While there is no direct cause and effect, the data shows that that as extremists expand their grip and forces bills through other state legislatures, education helps Massachusetts to avoid their control. Massachusetts' education blueprint is a must-follow in other states if citizens want to fight back and maintain an even keel. How to fight ALEC? Education, education, education.

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Robert Weiner, NATIONAL PUBLIC AFFAIRS AND ISSUES STRATEGIST Bob Weiner, a national issues and public affairs strategist, has been spokesman for and directed the public affairs offices of White House Drug Czar and Four Star General Barry (more...)

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