The influence of special interests extends to local editorial pages

(Photo credit: John S/Flickr)

Influencing policymakers can take many forms. In fact, it is guaranteed in the Constitution under the First Amendment as the “right to petition government.” Traditionally we think of this as in-person lobbying to introduce new legislation or alter existing legislation. This is most often conducted by an individual, group or third-party representation (e.g. a lobbying firm).  

Despite the rise of social media platforms, the editorial pages of local newspapers still remain a key gathering place for debates about local and regional matters of importance. It is also a place where industries and individuals alike seek to influence policymakers at the local level.  

Alaska Dispatch News columnist Dermot Cole recently took this tactic to task after an op-ed on the seemingly obscure topic of occupational licensing was placed in the Dispatch News by Mark Holden, a senior vice president at Koch Industries. Koch Industries is a Kansas-based company controlled by Charles and David Koch, billionaires that have bank-rolled numerous conservative political groups and causes.

The op-ed begins by asking: “What should Alaska lawmakers’ New Year’s resolutions be?”

Holden cites a report from the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice (founded by seed money from the Koch brothers) and lists “onerous requirements” of occupational licenses in the state, like the policy that “school bus drivers in Alaska can’t be hired without 1,097 days of experience.”  

Cole points out that actually, state rules require school bus drivers in Alaska to have had a driver’s license for three years.

What is even more curious about this op-ed is that it was replicated in 36 states. Cole details how a nearly identical op-ed was placed in local newspapers from California to Pennsylvania, using a template seen below:

Lawmakers in (NAME OF CITY)  and the state government in (NAME OF STATE) should — at the very least — prevent the creation of new occupational licenses. Better yet, they should roll back those that already exist. If lawmakers do this, they’ll help countless low- and middle-income (NAME FOR  STATE RESIDENTS) improve their lives and climb the ladder of opportunity. Surely that’s a New Year’s resolution worth making — and keeping.

This strategy of influence is nothing new in Washington, and is one of the many forms of  “astroturfing.” Astroturfing happens when a national group takes an idea or cause and artificially localizes it to try and make it more meaningful for communities.

In addition to big donations, political ads and lobbyists, this is yet another way outside groups and special interests try to influence our policy debate and our government.

Read Cole’s full column here.