Friday, 06 April 2012 00:00
ALEC is back in the news, where it probably doesn’t want to be. ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, until recently virtually unknown to the general public. People are starting to understand.
Made up of about 2,000 legislators representing all 50 states and about 300 representatives from corporations and foundations, ALEC creates “model legislation,” hundreds of bills which are introduced in state legislatures across America each year. Exactly which bills were from ALEC and a lot of other details were once shadowy subjects, but since last year have been repeatedly dragged into the spotlight thanks to the work of several government and media watchdog organizations, and the independent media.
Based in Washington, ALEC has existed behind the scenes since the Nixon Administration, and has taken a hand in national legislation, too (there 85 members of Congress in ALEC). However, it is state legislation that has made ALEC a slang term among political people. Whenever regressive legislation seems to come out of nowhere, people now think of ALEC.
Legislators pay $50 in annual dues and are then granted a “scholarship” to attend conferences in luxurious resort hotels (Las Vegas and Orlando were recent sites). Legislators’ families are welcome; tax documents have revealed that ALEC spent $138,000 to entertain the children of members at one conference. Corporate members pay tens of thousands of dollars each in annual membership fees. Almost all of ALEC’s funding for staffers, research, and conferences comes from corporate sponsors, foundations and private donors. None of these have to be publicly declared. Though legislators with leadership titles are listed in ALEC materials, the full member list is a closely guarded secret, and no one will reveal which public officials from which states hold scholarships.
ALEC’s 22-member “Enterprise Board” of corporate directors is made up of top executives from Koch Companies, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, Reynolds American, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Exxon-Mobil and other very well-known firms. Hundreds of other corporations have been outed as current or past donors. Corporate representatives sit on all ALEC subject task forces and vote along with legislators to approve the wording of model bills.
In the last few years, some of this legislation has galloped through legislatures. On March 19, Tennessee became the fourth state to require that climate change denial be incorporated into its science education curriculum. Louisiana, South Dakota and Texas put similar laws on the books in 2009 and 2010. Three months ago, it was revealed that these laws started life a decade ago as ALEC draft legislation called the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act.
You are probably familiar with some other ALEC initiatives, including laws that have rolled back the ability of citizens to vote easily in eight states during the past two years. Last week, the Florida League of Women Voters suspended all voter registration efforts because the onerous new voting law carries a $10,000 fine if a registration form is not turned in within 48 hours. And Florida is timing it to the minute. The fewer citizens who participate in elections, the easier it is for other forces to influence the results, especially in swing states.
Last week, we also learned that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives citizens the right to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” they are in danger, was promulgated across the country by ALEC. Several more state legislatures were ready to advance their own versions last week, but the Trayvon Martin shooting incident stopped bills dead, even in Alaska.
New York has had an ALEC point man in Albany for many years. State Senator Owen Johnson’s district is in Babylon and Islip, although for ten of his 40 years in the Senate he represented a significant chunk of Oyster Bay.
Senator Johnson has been on the ALEC Board of Directors since at least 1986. For 2012, his official title on the board is “Chairman Emeritus.”
A bizarre struggle is now playing out between Democrats. State Senate Democrats insist that they will fund the campaign of a local candidate who wants to run against Johnson, a Republican, while the Suffolk County Democrats insist that they will not support any challenge.
Why not? Many other questions come to mind.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org