Politics

ALEC Enjoys A New Wave of Influence and Criticism

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s conservative ideas are resonating in practically every area of state government. And its opponents aren’t happy about it.
by | December 2011

ALEC is at the top of its game.

For decades, the American Legislative Exchange Council has been a force in shaping conservative policies at the state level. Today, its impact is even more pervasive. Its legislative ideas are resonating in practically every area of state government, from education and health to energy, environment and tax policy. The group, which brings together legislators with representatives from corporations, think tanks and foundations to craft model bills, has rung up an impressive score. Roughly 1,000 bills based on ALEC language are introduced in an average year, with about 20 percent getting enacted.

Its very success, however, is beginning to prompt a backlash. While it has long been the target of ideological opponents, many media outlets are now portraying it as a kind of cabal that is secretly pulling the strings in state capitols nationwide. More recently, ALEC has become part of the broad litany of complaints among those castigating corporations for gaming democratic institutions in their favor.

ALEC officials, needless to say, scoff at such characterizations. But they recognize how potent they can be, given the growing anticorporate populism exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. For the organization, it’s a bigger public relations headache than it’s ever experienced before. “The hook about some conspiracy or some secret organization,” says Chaz Cirame, ALEC’s senior director of membership and development, “is a lot better story than one about bringing state legislators together to talk about best practices around the country.”

Regardless of the looming PR challenge, ALEC’s own success is prima facie evidence of its growing influence. Its support for limited government and fewer regulations resonates with many state officials in the wake of the sweeping victories enjoyed by Republicans last fall. “The elections did have a huge impact in terms of membership and financial support for the organization,” says Duane Parde, president of the National Taxpayers Union and a former ALEC official. “ALEC was well positioned.”

These days, you can hardly think of a front-burner issue in states in which ALEC doesn’t play an important role:

Health care: ALEC’s State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare has served as a template. Legislators have introduced countless bills based on ALEC language to block implementation of the 2009 federal health-care law. Approaches vary, from trying to block states from applying for federal grants to calling into question the mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance. The organization recently approved a resolution decrying the requirement that states set up health insurance marketplaces known as exchanges.

Versions of ALEC’s Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act, a direct challenge to the federal law, have been introduced in more than 40 states. Measures have passed in about a dozen. Next year, such measures will go before voters in Alabama, Florida, Montana and Wyoming. “It’s really no secret,” state Sen. Jane Cunningham, the lead sponsor of Missouri’s version, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August. “I learned about the idea from ALEC and brought it back to Missouri.”

Climate change: More than a dozen states have approved resolutions, with basic text provided by ALEC, calling plans by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions a “train wreck” that will harm the economy. In addition, a number of states from New Hampshire to Oregon have seen legislation, based on an ALEC document, looking to withdraw from regional climate change initiatives.

Voter ID: In more than 30 states, legislation was introduced this year to mandate or strengthen requirements that voters produce state-issued photo identification. Many of the bills were based on ALEC model legislation and became law in a half-dozen states. Other bills addressed matters such as shortening voting periods and tightening registration requirements.

Immigration: Last year, NPR reported that the tough law regarding illegal immigrants in Arizona -- and since copied in Alabama and other states -- had been drafted months before its introduction at an ALEC meeting. The group’s critics say the law, which requires local police to check the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally, was another attempt to provide business for its members from the private prison industry. “This is not one of our priorities at ALEC,” says Ron Scheberle, the group’s executive director. “We are not taking the lead on immigration. It’s someone else’s idea.”

Pensions and unions: Scheberle also says ALEC is “not really leading the effort” to scale back pension benefits, although the group has been doing work on limiting the types of packages offered to new hires. ALEC has also had a hand in shaping legislation designed to limit the role and organizing strength of public-sector unions.

Scheberle’s demurrals are not unusual. For years, ALEC has sought to downplay its own role in affecting legislation. The fact that it has model legislation covering a particular issue is seldom announced and legislators like to say that they thought up an idea on their own, or through consultation with a variety of interest groups and not just ALEC.

But the publication of 850 model bills and other documents on a website called ALEC Exposed, which is run by the liberal Center on Media and Democracy, has made it easier to compare proposed bills with language crafted by ALEC -- both for journalists and the group’s ideological opponents in individual state capitols. “ALEC’s fingerprints were all over [Florida’s] bill prohibiting state employers from withholding union dues and requiring members to approve using dues for political campaigns,” the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale editorialized in August.

In addition, Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group that supports campaign finance restrictions, filed a request in July with the IRS for an audit of ALEC’s books, claiming it acts more like a lobbying group than a nonprofit.

ALEC began its rise to power and influence in 1973 with a series of small steps. Its first meeting attracted just 27 members. The group initially concentrated on social issues such as abortion, but soon switched its focus to business and regulatory matters. Over time, it evolved into its current structure, which includes oversight from separate boards representing the public sector -- that is, legislators -- and roughly 300 corporations and other private entities. Together, legislators and private-sector members sit on nine task forces that craft model legislation that is often introduced in states.

Its current level of influence represents something of a comeback. Back in 2007, the group was hemorrhaging staff. More than two-thirds of its people left, many complaining about the imperious style of its executive director. Fundraising suffered as relationships with some private-sector donors soured. To stay afloat, the group depended on a half-million dollar infusion from one of its major backers. “Yeah, ALEC was going through a tough time then financially,” says William Howell, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House and a former ALEC national chairman.

All that’s changed now. Internal management and fund-raising issues have been resolved, and today, ALEC is atop the leader board. Membership is currently a heady 2,000 legislators -- more than 25 percent of all legislators nationwide. This summer, Noble Ellington, ALEC’s national chairman and a Louisiana state representative, could proudly say that ALEC is “enjoying one of its finer times.”

It’s no wonder ALEC continues to attract support from some of the nation’s largest companies, including AT&T, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Pfizer and Koch Industries, a privately held energy company whose owners are also major tea party supporters. Other associations to which state lawmakers belong also attract droves of lobbyists to their meetings and rely heavily on corporate underwriting. But only ALEC gives corporate types a seat at the table with elected officials to create and shape policy directly.

Unions, environmentalists and other progressive groups have long lamented that they have not been able to set up an organization with the heft and scope to rival ALEC. “Over the years, I’ve watched many good alternatives fail,” says Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat. “We have just never had the resources that they do. We have a barking Chihuahua compared to an 800-pound gorilla.”

Liberals not only complain that they themselves lack the kind of funding available to ALEC, they also warn that the group’s backers distort the legislative process through such heavy spending. Not only do legislators often find their attendance at ALEC meetings paid for through corporate “scholarships,” but once they arrive, they are heavily wined and dined and golf-coursed by the group’s private-sector members.

If they choose to fill their briefcases or iPads with ALEC model legislation and introduce similar bills back home, campaign contributions may follow. Groups such as Common Cause say that the $6 million or so that private-sector entities annually provide ALEC has been dwarfed by their campaign donations. According to an analysis released this summer by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, ALEC corporate members have devoted more than $500 million to state-level politics since 1990, with about $200 million going to candidates, $85 million to state parties and $228 million to ballot measure campaigns.

As always with money and politics, there are questions about whether corporations are able to sway legislators through their largesse, or are simply rewarding politicians for pushing sympathetic policies. No doubt both dynamics are at work. Money, of course, helps buy access to lawmakers. That’s undeniably true of ALEC, where legislators pay a measly $100 for membership but corporations are dunned for $10,000, or often much more.

But ALEC’s rapid growth in membership over the past year -- and the 30 percent bump in attendance at its annual meeting in New Orleans in August -- can also be attributed to the election of a large new class of conservative legislators. Republicans now hold more seats in state legislatures than at any time since the 1920s. Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat, decries ALEC’s pro-corporate agenda and says it presents too narrow a view on most issues, but he concedes that the vast majority of legislators who participate aren’t so much swayed as already sympathetic to its brand of conservatism. “So many more legislators now are more oriented toward the ALEC philosophy, and it’s a good resource for them,” says Howell, the Virginia speaker.

ALEC bills itself as bipartisan and has had a couple of conservative Democrats serve as chair in recent years, but its membership is overwhelmingly Republican. Many of ALEC’s setbacks this year have come when GOP-dominated legislatures have passed versions of its model legislation, only to see them vetoed by Democratic governors in states such as New Hampshire, Minnesota and Montana.

But those setbacks have been relatively few. Given its influence, ALEC now finds itself subject to angry headlines with language such as “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” and “Vile Machinations in Minnesota.” Oregon state Rep. Gene Whisnant, an ALEC Legislator of the Year, says sardonically, “We’re getting a lot of attention saying we’re trying to destroy the earth and everything on it.”

ALEC had occasionally been attacked over the years by left-leaning publications for pairing legislators with corporations that, along with trade associations and foundations, pay most of the group’s freight. But the leak of a large cache of documents to the Center for Media and Democracy triggered critical coverage, not only from lefty bloggers and magazines like The Nation, but from more mainstream media outlets as well.

An increasing number of legislators are being confronted by local media about the close resemblance of bills they’ve introduced to ALEC model legislation or about their attendance at ALEC meetings, which is often financed directly by the group’s corporate members. It’s become almost commonplace for many legislators to disavow having been overly influenced by the group or its model bills.

If some lawmakers demur from publicly pledging allegiance to the group or giving it credit for their more controversial ideas, many still say it’s a tremendous resource in terms of converting campaign rhetoric and nascent policy ideas into legislative language. Whisnant freely credits ALEC model legislation for forming the basis of several bills he’s introduced, including a law setting up a website to allow easy inspection of state expenditures and a bill, thus far unsuccessful, to abolish positions that agencies have kept vacant for more than six months. “It helps bridge that gap in institutional knowledge,” says Cirame, ALEC’s membership director. “Folks know they want to go to their state capitols and change things, and the question becomes how.”

All politics, at the state level and beyond, is about influence. Oil companies, teachers, real estate agents and beer distributors are all looking for ways to help their cause. Some are seeking conditions that will help their businesses grow, while others are seeking to profit either directly through government contracts or through regulations that help them while harming rivals. (Over the years, many of the relatively few examples of contention within ALEC ranks have come from companies in competition with one another.)

Some groups that claim to promote the common good know they must compete not only with those who hold differing views about what’s best for the state but also interests and individuals that are seeking direct gain from policy changes. ALEC often promotes policies that clearly benefit its members, including efforts to expand public-private partnerships in areas such as education. Its success on so many fronts is taken by its critics as proof that the game is rigged in favor of its private-sector members.

Just about any legislator involved with ALEC will remind you that all sorts of groups help draft bills, provide campaign cash and help fund efforts to influence legislation. “A lot of people don’t understand model bills -- they think of them as pernicious,” says Alan Smith, a former ALEC director who is now a senior fellow with the Heartland Institute. “But bills come from every corner in this country, and they still have to go through the whole process.”

Current ALEC officials say they are providing an avenue for legislators to get ideas, not only from private-sector companies but also their colleagues from other states. “What ALEC does as much as anything else is give legislators support and strength in numbers,” says Howell, the former ALEC national chairman. “You’re not only the one out there with that idea -- this has worked in Idaho or Nebraska or wherever.”

Scheberle, the group’s executive director, is pleased that ALEC has seen an uptick in membership. But he claims this has less to do with the election of large numbers of conservatives to legislatures lately than to the effort his group makes to provide “solutions” to the pressing problems of the day. “[Most] legislators don’t have the staff or budgets to go and hire a bunch of people, but they do need good ideas and they’ll take them from wherever they can get them,” Scheberle says. “If they come to our meetings and they don’t come away with good ideas of things to do once they’re back at their legislatures, we haven’t done our job.”

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