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"ALEC isn't simply a think tank or a gathering of lawmakers, it is a corporate-funded operation that pushes a corporate message and a conservative message," said Graves. The Center for Media and Democracy made public in July 2011 eight hundred internal documents on its website — ALECExposed.org — proving ALEC's cloaked hand in crafting "model legislation" meant for introduction in statehouses around the country. "At its core it is a way to take some of these ideas that a think tank might fancy and operationalize them," she said. "And I use 'operationalize' very purposefully."
A call to ALEC's media relations representative for this story went unanswered, but the organization's ideological bent is clear enough on its website: it declares that it favors "conservative public policy solutions."
Registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, ALEC boasts around 2,000 member legislators — the vast majority being Republicans — who pay a nominal fee for membership, and upwards of 300 corporate and other private-sector members who pony up between $7,000 and $25,000 for the privilege of getting together with sympathetic lawmakers at lavish retreats.
Broken up into task forces focused on various aspects of public policy — from education to law enforcement and the environment — ALEC members, both from the public and private sectors, get together and write model bills, which are then voted on and, if ratified, carried home by ALEC legislators for introduction in their respective states. In California, Proposition 32, which would strip unions of their political power in the state, was inspired by model ALEC legislation.
This strategy has been successful. ALEC brags on its website that each year about 1,000 pieces of ALEC-written or ALEC-inspired model legislation ends up getting introduced in the states, with an average of 20 percent becoming law.
Despite this, and even though the organization has been active for nearly forty years — it was established in 1973 by arch conservative Paul Weyrich, who also started the Heritage Foundation — ALEC has remained largely under the radar. Nonetheless, its impact on policy reads like a greatest hits compilation of the most controversial bills in recent history: from changes to US gun laws like the Florida "stand your ground" legislation made infamous by the Trayvon Martin shooting (a measure that was crafted with help from the National Rifle Association, a prominent ALEC member), to state-based efforts at overturning or circumventing the Affordable Care Act, to recent measures limiting teacher union powers and handing portions of student instruction over to for-profit education companies. Even Arizona's hotly contested immigration law — SB1070 — started as an ALEC-approved "model" bill. "There's a whole set of bills that are advancing that corporate agenda to privatize prisons, privatize education, and by privatize, I mean profitize," said Graves.
According to figures from ALEC's own IRS filings from 2007 through 2009, the organization raked in more than $21.6 million from corporations (with members including Exxon Mobile, Altria, GlaxoSmithKline, and Pfizer), foundations like none other than the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and nonprofits including the NRA, Goldwater Institute, and Family Research Council. In all, private-sector contributions account for nearly 98 percent of ALEC's funding, while the annual dues paid by member lawmakers, pegged at about $50, came to just more than $250,000, or about 1 percent of its haul during the same time period.
In exchange for these hefty (tax-deductible) donations, ALEC's private-sector members get to ensure that individual pieces of ALEC legislation mostly serve a narrow band of very specific corporate interests: education measures benefit for-profit education firms and harm unions; health care measures benefit insurance companies and drug manufacturers; tort reforms benefit corporations in general by limiting their liability to consumers.
More "insidious," as Graves put it, is ALEC's drive against voting rights. "It's deeply cynical and quite sinister — an outlandish effort by ALEC and others to make it harder for Americans to vote," she said. "At the end of the day, depending on which analysis you're looking at ... it's possible that these measures remove maybe 1 percent from the pool of votes that would be part of the election. You still have an election, but you've shaved off this percentage; you have the appearance that you have an election."
Analysis by the News21 project found that more than half of the 62 strict ID bills introduced in legislatures since 2009 were based on (or copied from) ALEC's sample voter ID bill, which was ratified by the group's membership that same year. These measures serve no particular business master, rather, they strike at the final weapon the public possesses to stem the tide of corporate-crafted legislation: access to the ballot box. "The essence of a democracy, and the essence of a representative democracy in the United States, is that we elect people to represent people," Graves said. "The question is whether our representatives are going to represent us, or if they're going to represent the interests of global corporations and, in some cases with ALEC, foreign corporations."
As for why big business would support limiting the franchise, the equation breaks down pretty simply: Corporations want to bring down barriers to doing business, and Republicans are more than happy to oblige. If Republicans don't win elections, then corporations don't see those barriers lifted. The solution: Eliminate the competition. If voting rights get in the way, well, like the notorious mob accountant Otto Berman once said, "Nothing personal. It's just business."
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