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Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Mark Fiore teamed with the Wisconsin-based watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy to produce a spoof on the iconic Schoolhouse Rock bit “I’m Just a Bill.” The cartoon spins the simplistic message of how laws get passed in the United States into a scathing critique of ALEC, as narrated by a slick-talking, limo-riding, cigar-smoking roll of cash. The takeaway is pretty obvious: There’s a new way of enacting policy in this country, and it has little to do with the average citizen.
ALEC essentially works like this: Legislators, corporations, nonprofits and trade groups pay dues up front for inclusion in the ALEC network. ALEC members are slotted into one of numerous issue-oriented task forces, each co-chaired by one legislator and one corporate representative. During annual conferences or task force meetings, these members review legislation from various states or pitch their own policy ideas. Model bills get approved with legislators and corporations voting as equals, giving corporations a level of influence that mere lobbying doesn’t necessarily afford.
In July 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy launched an online database of roughly 800 pieces of model ALEC legislation. The group dubbed the project ALEC Exposed.
“Before the whistleblower contacted me with the bills, first of all, no one really had a sense of the breadth and depth of that agenda,” says CMD Executive Director Lisa Graves, who’s headed the ALEC Exposed project since its inception. “There are certainly some people in the states, legislators and others, who’d seen ALEC around the state legislatures or heard mention of them or, back a couple decades ago, seen some of ALEC’s public sourcebooks. But ALEC for the most part in recent years was trying to keep their fingerprints off of those bills in essence. So there were a number of bills that had been moving for many years—prison privatization bills…tort bills, education bills—that were introduced and that were ALEC bills but nobody realized were ALEC bills. When I looked at the model bills, I realized how extensive that influence was by ALEC.”
But what really shocked Graves was a separate document outlining the internal operations of ALEC, such as task force appointments. The document described exactly how ALEC fostered an environment in which public and private sector members had an equal voice and vote on legislation intended for later introduction in state capitals.
Some ALEC members are quick to wave off the mounting concerns nationwide. They commonly assert that ALEC is just another think tank seeking to educate citizen legislators on the basics of lawmaking and help them navigate a foreign system.
“We’re not paid professional politicians,” says Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Big Fork, and the ALEC chairman for the state of Montana. “As citizen legislators, what [ALEC] does is help you …These conferences you go to are informative, they educate you on what’s topical in different states so you don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel. Some of them educate you on leadership, how to work across the aisle, how to work better in a citizen legislator format so you’re not fighting all the time as parties but finding common ground.”
There’s more to it, though. ALEC typically hosts its conferences at posh resorts across the country, and corporations actually fund scholarships for legislators to attend. A list of past scholarship donors and recipients recovered by ALEC Exposed reveals a few interesting facts from Montana alone. Between 2006 and 2007, NorthWestern Energy paid $15,000 toward scholarships for numerous ALEC-affiliated state legislators. Pfizer paid $1,000 in 2006, the same year Peabody Energy ponied up $2,500. Legislators who received travel scholarships between 2006 and 2008 include Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel ($1,548.45), Rep. Wendy Warburton of Helena ($1,765.24), Rep. David Howard of Park City ($744.13), Sen. Verdell Jackson of Kalispell ($2,969.20) and Sen. Jeff Essman of Billings ($1,005.47), who is currently the senate president.
CMD has amassed a treasure trove of documentation on ALEC activity over the past two years, some of it from whistleblowers, some from public records requests, even some by sheer accident. But there are glaring gaps in the information publicly available on what goes on behind the scenes at ALEC. According to the nonprofit’s tax filings, membership dues only accounted for $97,321 in ALEC revenue last year. By comparison, “contributions, gifts and grants” brought in $7,759,834, leading critics to speculate that ALEC is bankrolled largely by corporate interests—which, of course, would be able to deduct such contributions due to ALEC’s 501(c)3 status.
“Most of the public doesn’t have a clue that that’s going on,” says Ed Bender, executive director of the Helena-based Institute for Money in State Politics. ALEC first caught Bender’s attention about a decade ago, when the group was backing a nationwide effort to privatize prisons. The strength of ALEC’s agenda waxes and wanes, Bender says, but it has found new life in recent years around a host of divisive regulatory and civil issues. Bender feels the real danger posed by ALEC’s model legislation is that pretty much all of it benefits the bottom line of for-profit corporations at significant expense to the taxpayer.
“They’re implementing a business plan, that’s all it is,” Bender says.
In 2002, the Natural Resource Defense Council published a collaborative report with Defenders of Wildlife titled “Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council.” In it, the environmental groups highlight growing concerns over the corporate ties that define ALEC. Citing thousands of pages of financial documents and tax returns, the NRDC claimed “corporations and trade associations finance virtually all of ALEC’s activities.” At the time, the NRDC found one of ALEC’s biggest underwriters to be energy mogul Enron Corp. The NRDC alleged that corporations, through ALEC, “mount a wide-ranging assault against laws safeguarding public health and the environment,” primarily through model legislation.
Additional information uncovered by Greenpeace revealed heavy financing of ALEC on the part of Koch Industries. Other groups who have launched critical reports on ALEC include the American Association for Justice, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, People for the American Way, Common Cause, ProPublica and Truthout.
The criticism doesn’t surprise Reichner. But he downplays the corporate prominence at ALEC, equating it to little more than another example of the type of lobbying done on behalf of special interests at other quasi-governmental conferences, political events and in Helena. Lobbying is a big part of contemporary policymaking, he says.
“Corporate sponsorship is relevant in any organization that’s out there. They have their lobbyists that are trying to push their particular agenda, and whether it be at an event or up here at the Capitol … lobbyists are a pretty common thing,” Reichner says. “They’re paid to push whatever agenda they’re supposed to be pushing.”
One of the biggest questions raised by ALEC critics is whether the group’s own actions legally constitute lobbying activity. As a nonprofit, ALEC hasn’t registered or disclosed any lobbying expenditures with the Internal Revenue Service. The most serious challenges to ALEC’s credibility have come in the form of several complaints to the IRS. Last year, a group of progressive church ministers from Ohio known as Clergy VOICE filed a complaint against ALEC alleging improper lobbying activity and failure to comply with public charity requirements. The Clergy VOICE letter came on the heels of another IRS complaint against ALEC filed by Common Cause challenging the legitimacy of ALEC’s charitable status. ALEC has repeatedly brushed off such claims, stating it plays no role in lobbying state legislators on policy and dismissing groups like Common Cause as nothing more than left-wing troublemakers.