ALEC: How corporations are taking over statehouses

You may think your Republican state legislator considers the needs of his or her district and introduces legislation accordingly. Well, think again. They don’t have to work that hard because they can get their legislation ready made from ALEC. It’s the political equivalent of buying your term paper online.

“ALEC” stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a hard-right, members-only group of Republican state lawmakers, corporations, and very wealthy individuals, who gather several times per year to write laws that can be taken back and introduced by the legislators in their home states. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and representatives of corporations deliver pre-written laws along with generous campaign support to legislators who then introduce the bills. According to Wiliam Cronon, professor at the University of Wisconsin, ALEC writes around 1000 pieces of corporate friendly legislation per year of which about 18% become law. The problem, according to Cronon, is that ALEC written legislation is presented to voters as being in their interest when their real purpose is to promote corporate agendas. (Because Cronon has been highly critical of Wisconsin’s Governor Walker and ALEC, the Wisconsin GOP, in retribution, is harassing him with a FOIA request for his university emails.)

ALEC and SB-1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration bill

One famous example of ALEC at work is the Arizona Immigration bill SB-1070, which was written by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company, at an ALEC conference. The controversial SB-1070 allows police to demand any one suspected of being an illegal alien to produce papers. If they are not able to do so, they can be sent to jail. And of course, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private for-profit prison company that has the contract to house federal detainees in Arizona, obviously makes a lot of money off the legislation they wrote. CCA, is a powerful, national prison business. Its business model is based on putting more brown people in jail and for longer terms of imprisonment. So they wrote that bill to increase their profits and passed it on to their friendly Republican State legislator who happily introduced it, and helped it become law.

ALEC was founded in 1973, by conservatives Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and Paul Weyrich, and has operated under the radar for decades. Its goal has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. According to a recent article in the Huffington Post, “ALEC: The Behind the Scenes Player in the States’ Fight Against the Middle Class,” ALEC has two kind of members:

1. State legislators who pay $50 per year in dues and in exchange get junkets to luxury resorts, free or heavily subsidized vacations for their families, and other fringe benefits including free child-care and medical tests, Broadway shows, and dinners at expensive restaurants. ALEC’s membership includes 2,400 state legislators, which is over 30% of all state lawmakers in the country.

2. Over 300 corporate sponsors who pay up to $50,000 per year in dues plus up to $5,000 to sit on industry-specific task forces in their areas of interest such as energy, healthcare, telecommunications and taxes. The task forces write and approve the model legislation that conforms to the business interests of their corporate members. Tax records indicate that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year. The corporate executives and their lobbyists then get substantial face time with the state legislators at ALEC’s retreats and other events.

Union busting, disenfranchising students, and rolling back environmental protections

ALEC has been behind efforts to dismantle environmental protections and to disenfranchise students. Most recently, ALEC has been a driving force behind the anti-union laws and union busting activities occurring in Republican controlled states, most notably in Wisconsin, and Ohio.

According to a recent article in the NYT, Michael Hough, director of ALEC’s commerce task force, said the aim of these measures was not political, but to reduce labor’s swollen power. “Government budgets have grown and grown because of the cost of employees’ pensions and salaries,” he said. “Now we have to deal with that.”

ALEC is not doing anything illegal, but it is troublesome that their corporate written legislation is introduced without any disclosure about who is behind it or who wrote it. If there was a legal requirement that all authors or consultants on legislation be identified, the public could have a more truthful discussion about the merits of certain bills and whether or not they truly serve the people of a state.