Cookie-cutter legislation 

How a corporate bill mill plays into Montana politics–and why you should care

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Rep. Blasdel refers to himself as an ALEC member “in name only.” While he holds a position on the nonprofit’s Education Task Force, he says he’s attended only one conference during his four terms in office. Even then, he went simply because he was already in Washington, D.C., for a separate, bipartisan school reform convention.

“For me, it doesn’t mean much,” Blasdel says of his ALEC membership. “Obviously there’s been talk of model legislation, but the reality is no matter where the idea comes from, it still has to be vetted by the full legislative process. I don’t think you have an upper hand on any legislation, because you still have to work through the process and have it fit with Montana laws.”

Blasdel adds it’s imperative that legislators take advantage of all available resources in drafting policy to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Not every idea is a good fit for Montana, Blasdel says. It’s a lawmaker’s job to listen to constituents, look at all legislative solutions and “analyze who are the winners and who are the losers.”

One of those winners, in Blasdel’s mind, is the charter school proposal. He originally introduced the bill in 2011. He would have carried the issue again this session as well, but says he felt his duties as the new House Speaker wouldn’t afford him enough time. Instead, he asked Knudsen to sponsor it. The bill needed serious revision the first time around, Blasdel says. Although critics connected a successful charter school bill in Georgia last year to the ALEC model—literally word for word in places—Blasdel denies the bill he orginally introduced has any ties to ALEC.

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  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Rep. Mark Blasdel, the current House speaker, introduced a bill in the 2011 Montana Legislature to establish charter schools in the state. Critics believe the bill originated with ALEC. Blasdel, who sits on ALEC’s Education Task Force, denies the allegation and says he’s an ALEC member “in name only.”

But another education reform bill Blasdel carried at the request of the Montana Family Foundation in 2011 was, by all appearances, ripped straight from the ALEC library. The bill would have established a special needs scholarship program for non-public schools, effectively incentivizing enrollment of disabled students in private schools and driving them away from the regulatory protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Similar pieces of legislation have cropped up in Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin, all of them bearing strong resemblance to an ALEC model bill.

ALEC Exposed has managed to confirm the membership of 25 past and present Montana representatives, as well as three sitting state senators and two past senators. There’s no easy way of knowing how many pieces of ALEC legislation have passed through the legislature over the years. But Rep. Reichner insists the process of drafting those model bills is perfectly public.

“Where do they come up with it? They come up with it from the different states,” Reichner says. “If a guy does a great job on an area like Medicaid reform, they’re going to go talk to that legislator and find out what they did and then try to write some model legislation that works in other states. The work comp issue I did, they brought me in and said, ‘Would you please come and do a presentation on what you did in Montana.’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Furthermore, Reichner doesn’t believe ALEC differs all that much from other national legislative organizations like the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Both host lavish conferences for state lawmakers, and both expose those lawmakers to the deep-pocketed influence of corporate lobbyists. Reichner says those groups play “a big role” in state government nationwide.

“It’s part of our education,” Reichner says. “ALEC just happens to be more conservative.”

The online news site Truthout published a four-part series last July centering on what it called “the other ALECs.” The stories focused on the infiltration of bipartisan trade associations by “stealth lobbyists” seeking to advance corporate agendas, and cited a “Nightline” piece from October 2010 about the schmoozing of state legislators at NCSL events. Nightline’s investigation uncovered a rash of lobbyist influence in the form of wild parties, lavish dinners and even a golf outing during which Alabama Rep. Artis J. McCampbell replied to a student journalist’s questions by pulling a golf club out of his bag and saying, “If you don’t want me to take this to you, then leave.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • In 2011, a whistleblower handed the Center for Media and Democracy more than 800 model bills developed by ALEC over the past 30 years. Several of the bills turned over to the CMD bear a striking resemblance to legislation introduced in Montana over the years.

True, Graves says, there’s a lot of lobbyist schmoozing orbiting such events. But after-hours wining and dining is a far cry from sitting around a table and voting on model legislation as equals.

“What’s different about ALEC is that during the day, these lobbyists are actually voting as equals behind closed doors with legislators on these bills,” Graves says. “NCSL does not have a procedure by which corporate lobbyists have an equal vote in these task forces. They aren’t voting on bills. Whatever they may be doing in the evenings as far as trying to schmooze and booze lawmakers ... they’re not actually granted ‘an equal voice and an equal vote,’ in the words of ALEC, to weigh in on the legislation. I think that’s a significant difference.”

Just the fact that the internal workings of ALEC were largely a mystery until watchdog groups began pushing in recent years seems to suggest the group has something to hide. The abrupt migration last year of corporate and legislative members away from ALEC—and, on a smaller scale, Rep. Knudsen’s denial that his charter school bill was based on an ALEC model—indicates a desire for distance from growing controversy.

“They only come up when there’s a high-profile case like that,” Bender says, referring to ALEC’s “stand your ground” controversy. “Otherwise, they are absolutely down in the weeds.”

Regardless of the stigma, ALEC continues to push these corporate-backed model bills with impunity. And ALEC will no doubt continue the practice as long as there are corporations forking over cash for a chance to influence state policy. The latest flurry of legislation from the ALEC playbook centers on disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process, offering a broad exemption for any chemicals claimed as trade secrets. ALEC has also been tied to the proliferation of right-to-work laws. Last year, Michigan became the 24th state to enact such legislation, which undermines labor unions by allowing non-union members to benefit from union representation without having to pay dues. The language in the Michigan bill contained numerous similarities to the ALEC model, as did a right to work measure introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature this year.

Just prior to Montana’s 2013 legislative session, Sen. Art Wittich, a Republican from Bozeman, requested a draft bill to “allow right to work” in Montana. The draft is still on hold.

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