ALEC used to be the secret right-wing group that provided millions of dollars to write conservative laws such as “stand your ground,” voter repression in the name of identifying fraud, and unconstitutional anti-choice laws. I say “used to be” because the American Legislative Exchange Council was forced out of the closet into the light of media’s day last month. Until today the list of corporations running away from ALEC had included 19 large corporations such as amazon.com, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield have dropped from ALEC. Nonprofits like the gigantic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also separated themselves from the far-right Koch-sponsored organization. Today both retail giant Wal-Mart and Medtronic, a medical device company, dumped ALEC.
ALEC has more than 2,000 legislative members, primarily Republican, from all 50 states, nearly one-third of all sitting legislators and more than 85 members of Congress and 14 sitting or former governors who are considered “alumni.” Approximately 300 corporate, foundation, and other private-sector groups are other, higher paying, members. ALEC’s chair, currently David Frizzell (IN) rotates with a new legislator appointed to the position each year.
Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker is the poster-child for ALEC with its anti-consumer, union-busting, voter-repression laws while giving huge tax cuts for corporations and the richest of its citizens. Of the 132 legislators, 49 are ALEC members, including top leadership in both houses. Walker began his devastation with an ALEC “omnibus” tort bill, making it harder for Wisconsin residents to hold corporations accountable after dangerous products injure or kill people.
Another poster-child, albeit much quieter than Wisconsin, is Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal used ALEC bills that advocate for the privatization of traditionally public services, like health care, prisons and education based on the misguided conservative belief that the results will be more efficient and competitive. Privatization is far more costly and less efficient as seen by the replacements in the military and prisons.
In Louisiana, laws were rushed through without any thought, for example the “parent trigger” law that allows a majority of parents connected with one school to change it into a charter school. There is no evaluation for the converted school, either before or after, and no way for failed charter schools to be “re-triggered.” Student placement is also limited. ALEC advice is to push a large quantity of bills very fast, to get them passed before people notice.
One influential trade association staying with ALEC is the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) that represents companies providing water services to almost 73 million people in the country. That’s almost one-fourth of the population. The goal of NAWC and ALEC is to legislate loopholes for water protections and federal oversight of fracking, a method of extracting oil that forces millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the ground. This practice not only puts drinking water resources at risk but also may be the reason behind the increasing number of earthquakes in the Midwest.
Another powerful corporation—and ALEC member—pushing for fracking is ExxonMobil. Model legislation from ALEC, based on a Texas law, gives guidelines for the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through fracking. The model bill has loopholes allowing energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, meaning that companies—like ExxonMobil—are then allowed to use any contaminants that they want without anyone knowing what these are.
One organization dropping ALEC last month is the national certifying body for teachers in the United States, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Supposedly a non-profit organization focusing on teacher certification, NBPTS also takes positions on political positions affect teacher certification.
Some legislators seem incredibly naïve about how ALEC truly lobbies. For example, state Rep. Paul Bandy, co-chair of the New Mexico branch of ALEC, said in an interview that he didn’t solicit donations from ALEC, that money just appears in his mailbox from ALEC-connected corporations. I guess he considers himself really lucky. He did understand that the ALEC laws might not pass if people know their origin. Bandy opposes the use of tax-deductible money for political purposes but didn’t seem to object using ALEC’s tax-deductible money for political purposes.
The South Carolina legislature is so supportive of ALEC that it has created a special ethics exemption for the organization. Lobbying rules that govern how public officials can interact with lobbyists prevent legislators from having their lodging and transportation provided by lobbyists—with the exception of ALEC—because “the outings that ALEC organizes for politicians are essential to its influence. At these retreats, ALEC officials work with state lawmakers to craft new legislation.” They certainly do!
When ALEC’s activities became widely known last month, there seemed to be a slight bit of hope after the organization announced that they would eliminate its Public Safety and Elections task force. Hope was short-lived, however, after the task force’s chair, state Rep. Jerry Madden (R-TX) said many of the issues would be transferred to other committees. ALEC’s definition of “public safety” is passing laws allowing people to go after others if they “feel threatened” and kill them if necessary, as happened to Trayvon Martin in Florida a year ago.
Disturbed when ALEC dropped its voter suppression arm, the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) stepped in and formed a “Voter Identification Task Force.” The NCPPR also criticized ALEC for withdrawing the voter-oppression task force after losing only 11 corporate sponsors. Part of NCPPR’s past activities have been to help Jack Abramoff launder millions of dollars and to raise funds by “bombarding senior citizens with ‘fright mail,'” money used to do things like help Exxon Mobil oppose efforts to address climate change.
One organization is fighting back against ALEC through its fraudulent tax-exempt status. The watchdog Common Cause has obtained hundreds of pages of documents and shared these with the New York Times. They are also using these documents and public records to support its Internal Revenue Service complaint, stating that ALEC does not deserve its tax-exempt status because it is a lobbying organization. ALEC denies that it is writing laws, but its membership brochure bragged that the group introduces over 1,000 bills annually and passes about 17 percent of these.
ALEC also sends talking points to its lawmakers to use when speaking publicly about issues like President Obama’s health care law. Alan P. Dye, a lawyer for ALEC, acknowledged that the group’s practice of communicating with lawmakers about specific bills could meet the federal definition of lobbying. His justification is that these communications were a result of “nonpartisan research and analysis.” Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy disagreed, stating that as of last August, all but one of 104 leadership positions within the organization were filled by Republicans and that the policies ALEC promoted were almost uniformly conservative.
Common Cause has made progress in at least one state. The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board will investigate ALEC for lobbying violations in that state. The board will likely address the complaint in July. In Minnesota, Common Cause also filed a complaint with state Attorney General Lori Swanson alleging that ALEC has misrepresented its role by filing as a 501 (c) (3).
The icing on the cake is within the IRS procedures: According to IRS policies, an analyst in the Whistleblower Office must consider the information provided by Common Cause. Common Cause could receive between 15 and 30 percent of any taxes, penalties and interest collected, if certain requirements are met. Only the IRS can challenge a nonprofit organization’s tax-exempt status because of court rulings.
The only thing better than ALEC having to pay taxes is for a watchdog organization to get some of it!