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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

ALEC Expose a Must-Read

The must-read of the day has to be “Pssst … Wanna Buy a Law?: When a company needs a state bill passed, the American Legislative Exchange Council can get it done” by Brendan Greely and Alison Fitzgerald at Businessweek. Much of the article focuses on the organization’s conniving to control internet access for it’s member’s benefit in LaFayette, LA. But the article also reveals quite a lot about ALEC’s power, pro-corporate and pro-Republican biases, secrecy and unsavory influence on legislators, including:

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit based in Washington, brings together state legislators, companies, and advocacy groups to shape “model legislation.” The legislators then take these models back to their own states. About 1,000 times a year, according to ALEC, a state legislator introduces a bill from its library of more than 800 models. About 200 times a year, one of them becomes law. The council, in essence, makes national policy, state by state.
ALEC’s online library contains model bills that tighten voter identification requirements, making it harder for students, the elderly, and the poor to vote. Such bills have shown up in 34 states. According to NPR, the Arizona bill that permits police to detain suspected illegal immigrants started as ALEC model legislation. Similar bills have passed in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Utah, and have been introduced in 17 other states. Legislators in Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Hampshire, and New Mexico have sponsored bills with identical ALEC language requiring states to withdraw from regional agreements on CO2 emissions. Sound a national trend among state legislators, and often you will find at the bottom of your plumb line a bill that looks like something that has passed through the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Paul Weyrich started the council in 1973 with a group of Republican state legislators. Weyrich also founded the Heritage Foundation and coined the phrase “moral majority.” More than 2,000 state lawmakers belong to ALEC; each pays $50 in yearly dues. A look at former members now on the national stage suggests the organization is a farm team for Republicans with ambition. There are 92 ALEC alumni serving in the U.S. House, 87 of them Republicans. In the Senate, eight Republicans and one Democrat are ALEC alumni, according to information found on ALEC’s website in April that has since been removed. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison (Wis.) research group, four sitting governors were members, including John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin…ALEC is open and helpful about some parts of its work and quiet and evasive about others. It tends to withhold information that might shed light on its corporate members, the ones that pay almost 99 percent of the council’s $7 million budget.

In addition to the aforementioned voter suppression and anti-pollution control legislation, ALEC champions a range of bills to protect corporations from regulations, as the authors explain:

The broader ALEC library includes bills that limit how much a parent company might have to pay for asbestos-related injuries or illness caused by a company it acquired, another that bans cities and counties from requiring restaurants to post nutrition information or food ingredients, and a bill that would shift the tobacco tax burden from big cigarette makers such as Altria Group (MO) to smaller chewing tobacco companies…
None of this is illegal. And it’s effective. It allows companies to work directly with legislators from many states, rather than having to lobby in each state individually to get language into a bill. ALEC says its mission is to help state legislators collaborate around the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty. It does this, and something else, too. It offers companies substantial benefits that seem to have little to do with ideology. Corporations drop bills off at one end, and they come out the other, stamped with the imprimatur of a nonprofit, “nonpartisan” group of state legislators. Among other things, ALEC is a bill laundry.

Until recently, ALEC has largely escaped public scrutiny, partly because the MSM generally does a lousy job of reporting on state legislation. But ALEC’s influence is more potent than ever, especially after the 2010 elections:

…Republicans didn’t just flip the House in November 2010. They also won from Democrats 675 state legislative seats and now control both chambers in 26 states, up from 14 before the election. ALEC membership has grown by 25 percent this year. Sitting out there are new state legislators, and they’re looking for something to do in the fall.
…Membership in ALEC, among both legislators and companies, has increased. In its member brochure for the 2011 annual meeting, ALEC listed 82 companies as sponsors, almost double the 42 sponsors from 2010. Those companies included Altria, BlueCross and BlueShield, and BP America (BP), all $50,000 chairman-level sponsors, according to ALEC’s website.

Equally disturbing is the lack of transparency for such an influential organization. As Fitzgerald and Greely note,

…When bloggers from a liberal website, ThinkProgress, tried to photograph the panels, they were hustled out of the conference by security guards. Another blogger from the website AlterNet was denied credentials and then kicked out of the hotel’s public lobby two days in a row for tweeting the names of ALEC members who passed by him.

There is a lot more worth reading in their article. Democrats are understandably focused on the GOP primary circus and the doings in congress and the white house, which is where nearly all the political media coverage is trained. But it’s clearly time for Democrats to pay more attention to what is happening in America’s state legislatures under the lengthening shadow of ALEC’s manipulation.

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