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Nocera calls Brien a smart ALEC; rep says NYT column a “hit piece”

June 19, 2012

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist once famously talked about shrinking the federal government “to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Providence native Joe Nocera uses his New York Times’ op-ed column today to argue that state Representative Jon Brien is wielding a similar cudgel to cut spending in Woonsocket:

And how does one go about doing that? By refusing to go along with tax increases and forcing the city to the edge of bankruptcy, thus raising the possibility of bringing in a receiver. “You never move faster than when you have a piano hanging over your head,” Brien told me. “The receiver is that piano.”

Nocera notes that Brien is a national board member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which offers its own “state budget reform toolkit.” The NYT columnist adds: “Although Brien has denied that he is applying the ALEC philosophy to his small city, it looks, in fact, as if that’s exactly what he is doing.”

Brien, an unapologetically conservative Democrat, sharply disagrees, using his Twitter feed to blast Nocera:

Inaccuracies, blatant ignoring of obvious facts, quotes chopped up and taken out of context, all agenda driven.

In an interview, Brien reasserts that his fiscal stance  is driven by Woonsocket’s condition:

This is about a struggling constituency, and the tax capacity in the city of Woonsocket that is at an absolute limit. So to try to make a connection in my involvement in ALEC and the decisions we made as a [legislative] delegation for the city of Woonsocket, really is just trying to connect the dots where there are no dots to be connected whatsoever.

I’m appalled by it all. [Nocera’s column] really seems to me to be nothing more than an agenda-driven hit piece that was nothing about Representative Jon Brien, nothing about Woonsocket, and everything to do with ALEC and someone’s disagremeent with the philosophies that ALEC has.

A few observations:

— For what it’s worth, Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform is also a member of ALEC.

— RI’s Future’s Bob Plain, who has reported extensively on ties betweeen ALEC and RI lawmakers, gets name-checked in the Nocera column. This is further evidence that Plain has energized the liberal blog in a way not seen since the era of its founder, Matt Jerzyk.

— Brien makes no bones about identifying with ALEC’s “free markets, low taxes” philosophy; he says his constituents support the same values. But as Ted Nesi has noted, some local lawmakers signed up for ALEC first and asked questions later.

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