Hiding the sausage 

How ALEC, a well-funded right-wing organization, is grinding out state laws

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When Jeff Wright walked into the lobby of the New Orleans Marriott on Aug. 3, he wasn’t sure what to expect. As the director of public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association – a prominent teachers’ union that had been bearing the brunt of legislative attacks from Florida Republicans throughout the 2011 legislative session – he wasn’t there for your standard Mardi Gras-themed party. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a national nonprofit organization made up of elected officials and private interests who gather regularly to try to directly influence the substance of public policy, was holding its annual four-day meeting there, so any “partying” would probably be a little more conservative, and – going by a recent glut of press coverage pointing out ALEC’s clearinghouse mentality of privately linking big corporations with the state legislators willing to pursue their bottom-line agendas in the form of “model legislation” – slightly more nefarious. Nevertheless, he wanted to see it for himself.

“I just registered straight up, fully disclosed who I represented, the whole thing,” he says, pointing out that he paid some $900 in registration fees. “I was surprised I got to go. I got pretty nervous going through several of the sessions, because they don’t always give both sides of the equation, needless to say.”

He wore a name tag disclosing his FEA affiliation, took some sideways glances from legislators, corporate suits and ALEC staffers, and got on with the business of having his eyes opened to the multimillion dollar machine that’s been effectively – and legally – chipping away at liberal causes in state legislatures across the country.

“At one point they told me I couldn’t come into one session,” he says. “I said, ‘Wait, no, I paid $900 to be a participant. My badge says participant. If I’m not going to be allowed in, then I’d like my money back.’”

Wright was allowed in, but he was one of the lucky ones. At least three journalists from independent media blogs were strong-armed by security guards instructed by ALEC to get them out. One state representative, Wisconsin Democrat Marc Pocan, reported some glares despite the fact that he, too, had paid his own way (a $50 annual fee for legislators).

“We had other people there representing the progressive side and those who were there that were from media groups – they weren’t permitted in,” Wright says. “They were bodily removed.”

ALEC is, by nature, a cynical construct. The multimillion dollar think tank insists it’s not a lobbying group, yet it readily utilizes the financial influence of its huge affiliate corporations to assist in the actual writing of law, and it helps with the election to public office those who will introduce its “model legislations” in state governments. It calls itself bipartisan, but in 2010, only three of its 23 legislative board leaders were Democrats. ALEC claims to be little more than a fair-minded gathering place of ideas, but the bulk of the science and ideals behind its think tanks are purchased directly by corporate special interests. And it operates, like many of its billionaire CEO members, in the dark rooms of closed meetings.

The best way to understand the shiny glass wall surrounding the shadowy ALEC premise is to look at the sort of word-for-word copycat legislation – essentially written by ALEC and sponsored by its legislator members – cropping up at the state level. During this year’s session of the Florida legislature, for instance, the passage of two proposed constitutional ballot initiatives (one to repeal healthcare reform, the other to cap government spending), a law challenging teacher tenure, new state election restrictions and the near passage of a racial profiling law mimicking Arizona’s SB 1070, among others, bore ALEC’s stamp. Among the organization’s more than 2,000 legislative members are local powerhouse names, like Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, gun-loving State Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, and avid pro-life State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood. Among those in receipt of campaign cash from ALEC-affiliated corporations are U.S. Congressman Daniel Webster, R-Orlando and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – both of whom spent time in the Florida legislature before taking the national stage. It is a pervasive conservative machine.

“[ALEC has] been waiting in the wings for Republicans to take over the state legislatures and governorships, and [has] pre-packaged, off-the-rack public policies with a conservative bent, ready for introduction,” University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith told the Tampa Tribune in May. “You see these cookie-cutter policies popping up across the country.”

And while the silent influence of corporations on politics at every level has become an accepted norm – see the lucrative careers of lobbyists, the impenetrable rubric of campaign finance laws and the recent Supreme Court decision to grant personhood to corporations – ALEC’s uniquely brazen efforts to connect legislators to corporate-conceived policies (with campaign donations presumably to follow) comes off as exceptionally well choreographed and frighteningly unstoppable.

For Wright, who was sitting in on an education “task force” meeting at the New Orleans Marriott, that meant coming face to face with the obvious: The Republicans are winning.

“They were just saying, ‘Look, it lined up perfectly for us. We ended up with a Republican house, a Republican senate and a Republican governor. Go for the jugular,’” he recalls. “That’s what the lady said: ‘Attack while you can.’”

ALEC’s roots stretch back to 1973, according to the group’s website. The organization was formed based on a perceived need for “a nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty.” Future Ohio Gov. John Kasich was there at the group’s initial meetings, as was controversial North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. But the group’s most cited founder, Paul Weyrich – the man who first launched the phrase “moral majority” and co-founded the Heritage Foundation – largely set the tone for the group’s early social agenda. Namely, as an informal think tank created to disenfranchise those who were not like them.

“Now many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo goo’ syndrome. Good government,” he notoriously told an audience of 15,000 preachers in Dallas in 1980 (the speech is on YouTube). “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

The documented history from there is murky and secretive at best, but ALEC didn’t remain a vehicle for political moralism for long. Increasingly the group came to align itself with large corporations and interest groups whose combined financial resources would be of better service to more economically conservative policies. Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Oil were soon at the boardroom table, clamoring for decreased regulation in states because state governments are more easily purchased than the national government. Cue: increased privatization, decreased regulation, protection against asbestos lawsuits and stricter prison sentences. Through its business-coddling measures, ALEC’s presence has grown in all 50 states, with nearly 2,000 legislative members and 300 corporate or special-interest groups convening three times a year (with one major annual conference) to hammer out next year’s conservative agenda.

Today, ALEC operates like a well-oiled political machine. In 2009 alone, 115 of the 826 bills produced by ALEC passed in state legislatures and were signed into law. At its policy core, ALEC has nine task forces –Civil Justice; Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development; Education; Energy, Environment and Agriculture; Health and Human Services; International Relations; Public Safety and Elections; Tax and Fiscal Policy; and Telecommunications and Information Technology – each headed by two separate leaders: one from the public sector (an elected state leader) and one from the private sector. So, on the task force involving the modeling of insurance legislation, you have Emory Wilkerson, a representative of State Farm Insurance, holding a commanding (if outwardly equal) vote with Colorado Republican State Rep. Glenn Vaad over what will move through the committee and what will not. If the corporation does not sign off, a measure has virtually no means of becoming model legislation to be taken by ALEC member legislators to their state governments.

That came as a surprise to Wright. “I thought they were the usual conferences where [the corporations] are all there to wine and dine and all that,” he says. “I had no idea that the structure of ALEC gives them full participation at the table. They sit at the table in the debate on the issues and then get to vote.”

And their vote is louder. According to Wright, at an Education Task Force meeting at the New Orleans conference, five out of six items up for consideration this year came from the private sector, one of which went so far as to require that every high school student study free enterprise for a full semester. That initiative was sponsored by Roberta Philips of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Interestingly, one of the other initiatives brought forth by the private sector – a “Comprehensive Legislative Package Opposing Common Core State Standards Initiative,” penned by the Goldwater Institute and the American Principles Project – was tabled on the advice of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush who, on his Foundation for Excellence in Education letterhead, tried to stem the flood of concerns that a federal standard for education was tantamount to giving in to big government.

“There is concern that this initiative will result in Washington dictating what standards, assessments and curriculum states may use,” Bush wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Weekly. “But these voluntarily adopted standards define what students need to know without defining how teachers should teach or students should learn.”

Beyond that minor conflict, Wright says, ALEC’s intent to weaken the traditional fabric of public schools and teachers’ unions was apparent: “It was absolutely made abundantly clear that the corporations want digital, virtual, charter and choice. That’s where they get the money.”

Money may be the goal of ALEC’s corporate affiliates, but it’s also become the group’s key public relations problem. The disparity between the public sector’s stake in ALEC’s finances and the private sector’s stake became the root of a rolling drumbeat against the organization this year. Liberal group the Center for Media and Democracy, which is responsible for the widely reported alecexposed.org website documenting the atrocities of ALEC, points out that of ALEC’s $6.3 million in 2009 revenues (according to the group’s tax documents), only $82,981 – or 1 percent – came from its nominal $50-a-head legislative dues. (Conversely, ALEC spends $600,000 a year to recruit and retain legislators). Corporations, meanwhile, paid dues of up to $25,000 a year, with additional fees charged to serve on task forces. Koch Industries – the energy conglomerate headed up by billionaire corporate bogeymen, Charles and David Koch – funded the group more than $200,000 in 2009. ALEC’s Washington, D.C., office employs just 28 people.

The fiscal picture gets even more suspect when you consider the outlying influence of ALEC’s corporate network on campaign finance. Banner ALEC companies like AT&T, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola and Walmart have poured more than $370 million into state races over the past decade, with more than $10 million of that coming into Florida. And yet ALEC maintains that it is an informational tool and not a lobbying group.

“ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss,” ALEC’s senior director of policy, Michael Bowman, told NPR in October. “You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They’re just trying to learn a policy and understand it.”

Just as the New Orleans convention was kicking off, the St. Petersburg Times seemed to challenge that assertion when it reported that ALEC maintains a $1 million “scholarship fund” to be used in bringing legislators to the convention table, a blatant example of pay for play. Florida law has forbidden elected officials from taking such gifts since 2006, but a former Florida House attorney issued a legal opinion that said that since ALEC “has significant funds that were collected prior to the effective date” of the law, the dozens of Republican legislators from Florida in attendance were acting above board in utilizing some of the funds for food and travel. Florida State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, who is the state’s ALEC leader allowed legislators to have their pricey meals paid for along with up to $500 for travel, according to the Times. “I felt that this was an honest way to allow the dollars to be used,” he told the paper.

Rep. Plakon didn’t make the convention, though his name is listed among the ALEC membership. “I had never heard of them until six or seven months ago,” he says. But Plakon is often heralded as one of the critical components behind ALEC’s stated mission to sabotage so-called “Obamacare,” state by state. He calls the connection between his “Health Care Freedom Act,” a constitutional amendment initiative to appear on next year’s ballot, “nuanced,” adding that he and his Republican brethren “have a responsibility as a legislature to be true to our own states, our own constituencies. … We are not robots of some out-state interests.”

However, one of Plakon’s closest house allies (and Tallahassee roommates), future House Speaker Chris Dorworth, doesn’t have the comfort of that kind of arm’s length separation from the ALEC machine. Liberal magazine In These Times pulled public records earlier this year that implicated Dorworth – and potentially Plakon – in conspiring with ALEC to pass anti-union legislation in the state. (Current House Speaker Dean Cannon initially denied any ALEC association). Dorworth’s bill, HB 1021, sought to prohibit the automatic payroll deduction of union dues from the paychecks of public employees. Within the 87 pages of public records obtained by In These Times was a packet titled “Paycheck Protection” containing several different drafts of nearly identical legislation; the difference was that this packet includes at the foot of the page the words “Copyright, ALEC.” Dorworth’s legislative aide Carolyn Johnson says that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. The ALEC draft was just one of many that was sent to Dorworth’s office for review.

“We never once worked with ALEC at all,” she says. “Nobody from ALEC has ever reached out to us.” She also reveals that Dorworth was in fact in New Orleans at the time of this year’s ALEC convention, but he did not attend any ALEC events.

The bill in question never made it out of committee on the Senate side due to immense public pressure.

Plakon likewise swears that he did not get the text of his similar anti-union bill from ALEC, and suspects that the “Paycheck Protection” ALEC boilerplate uncovered by In These Times was probably just one of many influencing factors in Dorworth’s decision to file his legislation.

“I get stacks of stuff,” Plakon says, somewhat dismissively. “They’re just one source of ideas for bill slots.”

On the surface, Plakon’s assertion that ALEC is just one of many special interests constantly available to assist legislators in crafting their bills may ring true. After all, the moneyed parading of influence by lobbyists in Tallahassee is nearly as expected as the lawmakers themselves as each legislative session begins. It’s all in the game.

“Really, it’s not that much different than the way things have already worked for a while,” says Brad Ashwell, Florida Public Interest Research Group’s democracy and consumer advocate. “It’s the same thing as it always was, only now they have more top-down planning, more corporate structure around.”

But it’s ALEC’s relative lack of transparency – or, in the case of the New Orleans conference, abject secrecy – that bends its credibility as a force in government. If nobody knows exactly what path the money is taking, it’s unlikely that it’s headed in the direction of the public interest.

“As a voter, it bothers me to think that if I’m talking to my lawmaker, or sending him a letter – or maybe I’ve been organized with 100 people in my community – that they’re going to overlook that in favor of some corporate vehicle for corporations to get what they want,” Ashwell says.

In July, Common Cause – which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy” – cried foul on ALEC to the Internal Revenue Service. ALEC is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit, and according to IRS rules, such organizations can lobby, but only if lobbying activity does not amount to a “substantial” part of their activity. In a letter to the IRS, Common Cause asked that the agency “review the organization’s operations to determine whether its tax-exempt status should be revoked due to excess lobbying or, alternatively, because ALEC appears to operate primarily to further private business interests and not to advance a charitable purpose.”

ALEC bit back, issuing a statement in which ALEC National Chairman Noble Ellington, R-La., alleged that Common Cause “has distorted the facts, concealed critical details and apparently attempted to mislead the news media and public.” Among the “distortions” Ellington alleges is that Common Cause failed to reveal in its report that, though 22 companies may have contributed to state political campaigns, Common Cause failed to distinguish individual contributions of company employees from those of the corporations themselves.

“Contrary to the claims of Common Cause, ALEC does not lobby; takes no role in partisan campaign activities; and has no involvement in campaign contributions made by an individual, company or political action com- mittee,” Ellington writes.

Brannon Jordan, the communications director for the Florida Democratic Party, says that ALEC has “rammed through a radical social agenda that has hurt Florida,” but doesn’t elaborate on whether that kind of radicalism can be used by Democrats to turn the tables on Republicans by painting them as corporate shills.

In fact, among local elected Democrats, frustration in the face of ALEC seems like a desperate act of futility. There are no real laws forbidding legislators from drinking at the trough of ALEC, or any individual corporation. Diluted campaign finance laws allowing unlimited “soft money” effectively assure that representatives can be bought and sold.

“ALEC has gone out of its way to throw people out of the room that don’t agree with them, to do things behind closed doors with and under the influence of the most far-right corporate backers,” says State Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. “The public should definitely be aware of the fact that this legislation being pushed by so many in the state legislature is coming from this type of organization.”

He calls ALEC’s scheme “intellectually dishonest,” adding, “They know that if they can get a Republican president and Republican senate again, then they’ll kick everything back to the states. It’s the classic 10-year approach.”

Meaning that while nobody is paying attention to state government – especially in a state that elected a governor neck-deep in Medicare fraud – the stage is being set for a corporation-owned future, parcel by parcel. “What they’ve learned is the more cynical they can make the public, the more likely they are to get away with it,” Randolph says.

“The Supreme Court made that ruling that money is speech,” adds State Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. “And it really has settled the question right now as to whether that’s corruption or not.”

If it isn’t corruption, it is fishy. Former Marion County Republican lawmaker Nancy Argenziano – who is currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives as an independent after recently becoming an outspoken opponent of her former political party – was once an ALEC member. In the late ’90s, she even attended an ALEC conference.

“I went to ALEC because I was really naïve at the time,” she recalls. “I thought this was really someplace you go to learn and get information.”

Specifically, Argenziano was pushing through three pharmaceutical bills, one of which involved supporting Warfarin, a generic blood-thinning alternative to Pfizer’s name-brand Coumadin. She braved the standard good-ol’-boy fare and rubbed shoulders with surprisingly few legislators, she says, as it was mostly staff members in attendance. When she entered the committee on healthcare, she was in for a surprise.

“I walk into the room and it’s Pfizer, it’s freaking Pfizer, that only had one side of the story and it was so biased that I knew then that it was just a mechanism for these guys,” she says. “Now, as you know, now this is years later. They have gotten to the point where they write the legislation that is repeated from state to state.”

For Argenziano, it was a wake-up call. She says she found a much fairer alternative in the National Conference of State Legislatures, an actual nonpartisan group that charges no dues and accepts no donations from for-profit corporations. “There I found balance.”

ALEC, she says, is dangerous.

“They own the government. I knew that they owned a certain amount, that there were certain contributions and certain leaders they owned, but I didn’t realize to what degree,” she says. “Now I’m frightened because they really own a great deal of our government from state to state. I’m not anti-corporation, but I am anti them taking over the government.”

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