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Parents United collection catalogs influence of secretive ALEC

Over the weekend, the content curators over at Parents United knocked one out of the park. They put together an exhaustive collection of articles, documents and multimedia items that catalog the influence of the secretive, powerful American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Never heard of ALEC? Made up of corporations, right-wing think tanks and conservative lawmakers, the group is a driving force behind this year’s coordinated, all-out effort to push tectonic policy shifts through state legislatures throughout the country. ALEC’s chief victory ground this year was, of course, Wisconsin, where the governor and legislative leaders enjoyed strong ties both to ALEC and its corporate members. 

Never heard of Parents United? It’s a Minnesota nonprofit that does a remarkable job of keeping tabs on all things related to public education. Executive Director Mary Cecconi knows more about school finance than most lawmakers and its news- and resource-packed website is a must-bookmark.

On matters of public education, ALEC’s strategy is to flood the market, according to one of the articles in Parents United’s collection, by The Nation: “ALEC’s 2010 Report Card on American Education called on members and allies to ‘Transform the system, don’t tweak it,’ likening the group’s current legislative strategy to a game of whack-a-mole: introduce so many pieces of model legislation that there is ‘no way the person with the mallet [teachers unions] can get them all.’”

Some 800 model bills leaked
Traditionally, ALEC has operated in secret, skirting campaign finance and lobbying disclosure laws. Earlier this year, some 800 model bills and other documents were leaked to the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy, which worked with The Nation to paint a comprehensive picture of its reach.

Really, what you ought to do is surf right over to Parents United’s site and start clicking. Even if you’re not an avid consumer of education news, there are links to ALEC’s initiatives on everything from health to criminal justice. In the interest of ensuring you’re convinced, I offer a recap of some of what’s there.

One largish caveat: Many of the items on ALEC’s agenda — teacher evaluation mechanisms, alternative teacher licensure, rewarding innovations — are on the agendas of more politically liberal lawmakers and advocates, too. Depending on the details, there are arguments to be made that not all of their versions are 110 percent student-centered, either.

But the picture of ALEC painted by the leaked documents says as much about the state of democracy as it does about the politics of education.

On that note, you might want to start with a National Public Radio story from last fall, which is a useful FAQ:

As much as $6 million per year
“Here's how it works: ALEC is a membership organization. State legislators pay $50 a year to belong. Private corporations can join, too. The tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and drug-maker Pfizer Inc. are among the members. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year. Tax records show that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year.

“With that money, the 28 people in the ALEC offices throw three annual conferences. The companies get to sit around a table and write ‘model bills’ with the state legislators, who then take them home to their states.”

And because ALEC maintains that it is a private membership organization and that none of this is lobbying, not even posh trips for lawmakers and their families, all of this takes place outside the realm of public reporting.

According to the ALEC official who described all of this to NPR, "ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss. … 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."

An example: Arizona's controversial law
And then, by way of example, the report notes that Arizona’s controversial law requiring the incarceration of anyone stopped by police who cannot prove their legal U.S. residency was drafted with the assistance of the Corrections Corporation of America was at the table. Locking up hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants would, of course, represent a windfall for the private prison operator.

Indeed profits are as much behind ALEC’s agenda as ideology, Nation reporter John Nichols told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, in a half-hour interview also accessible via Parents United:

"All of those pieces of legislation and those resolutions [in the documents] really err toward a goal, and that goal is the advancement of an agenda that seems to be dictated at almost every turn by multinational corporations. ... It's to clear the way for lower taxes, less regulation, a lot of protection against lawsuits, [and] ALEC is very, very active in [the] opening up of areas via privatization for corporations to make more money, particularly in places you might not usually expect, like public education."

In addition to initiatives such as vouchers and tuition credits, ALEC’s education page lists model bills that would require high school students be instructed in the Founding Fathers’ true intents, a resolution on “non-verified science curriculum funding” — you only get one guess as to where that one’s headed — and bills requiring “intellectual diversity” on higher-ed faculties.

Common Cause has published a lengthy report on ALEC’s finances and political spending, and a shorter piece on its financial activities in Minnesota.

Minnesota education chairs on ALEC task force
All three Minnesota education chairs, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington; Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton; and Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, are members of the ALEC Education Task Force.

For the fly-speckers among you, Parents United has compiled comparisons between ALEC’s model ed bills and Minnesota’s omnibus packages.

I have one more thing to say before I commend you to Parents United, and that’s to convey my frustration that here in the Twin Cities we’re learning about ALEC largely thanks to a nonprofit with five staffers and an enormous watchdog agenda. Common Cause and the Minnesota chapter of the League of Women Voters have taken bites of this, but there’s been little from local media — including from me.

I’ve spent nearly three decades marinating in the First Amendment, and I can only speculate that a more robust journalistic community would never have overlooked a coordinated, multimillion-dollar effort being conducted on the fringes of accepted lobbying activity. Indeed, we have a First Amendment in order to be able to ride herd on elected officials who tiptoe up to the line.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of democracy as a use it or lose it proposition.

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Comments (17)

I am confused by this piece: Is it being presented as op/ed or as reporting? It is not identified as op/ed or analysis, but it is openly biased in language and logic. The existance of ALEC and Parents United may be new and interesting information to many readers, but the writer's presentation of this material is does not stand up to my expectations of journalistic standards in MinnPost.

Perhaps we need to be "in union" in asking who is behind "Parents United"!

ALEC=shadowy group no one has heard of

Parents United=heroic group no one has heard of

I see that you "marinate" in the First Amendment. The First Amendment is [helped---hindered] by a group petitioning the government for redress of grievances (in this case, education reform). Anyone? Anyone?

The terms "fringes of accepted lobbying" and "tiptoe" make it sound like it is perfectly legal. The legislation they are advocating sounds, in some cases, like it has bipartisan support. Am I missing something with this article?

I suggest reworking the article into a blog post saying that there is an interesting study, providing a link, and telling us to make up our own minds. Otherwise the logic gets too muddled.

Finally, is the Arizona immigration law a misdemeanor or a felony? Does the goal of the legislation include deportation of illegal aliens? If so, how could a private prison company profit from the legislation?

Mr. Swanson: ALEC is organized by and for powerful corporations that include Koch Industries and members of the National Chamber of Commerce. They are buddies with Grover Norquist and the other anti-tax zealots.

Their agenda goes way beyond just education. Common Cause describes it as including "support of public subsidies for private schools, the development of private prisons [and the use of prison labor to benefit private corporations who find prisoners cheaper than union members], restrictions on voting rights and unlimited, secret corporate spending on behalf of political candidates and parties. ALEC opposes federal and state environmental regulations, the new federal health care reform law, state minimum wage laws, and trade and public employee unions."

Thirty members of the Minnesota legislature are members. Mary Kiffmeyer is the current chair of the Minnesota chapter and, with others, went to the ALEC convention in New Orleans to develop more boilerplate legislation with the "help" of 22 corporations that make up its "private enterprise board."

In addition to the sources Beth Hawkins lists, please see the Center for Media & Democracy website called www.alecexposed and the The Nation articles linked to it.

Kudos to Parents United!

But you are right about local media negligence on this, Beth.

And I'll point out that some of us bloggers/tweeters have been screaming bloody murder about this.

Meanwhile the right wing, e.g. Mitch Berg and fellow travelers, have been doing all they can to minimize the dangers to democracy posed by this disgraceful operation.

Wake up, please. Our legislation should not be written by ALEC. And sadly much of the misguided stuff of the last session has ALEC fingerprints all over it, including that sponsored by people who should know better...

Bill Gleason

Fair question about Parents United. ALEC's shifty and corrupt underbelly is well-documented.

So I looked at the Parents United board of directors. They're all Minnesota parents with kids in, or graduated from, Minnesota schools. Many are school volunteers, some are business people, some are former school board members, one happens to be Rep. Keith Ellison's wife (they do have kids in Minnesota schools, parents like the rest of them).

Seems like a very, very appropriate group to be working on issues around education in Minnesota. As opposed to ALEC, which is a group of huge corporations from outside Minnesota pushing a political agenda onto our state and buying influence for their own gain.

It is interesting that a group (ALEC) is for "federalism", in other words devolve national control to state control, but is run by large corporations with national, if not international power.

Who will have more power in these future deals--giant corporations or states with watered-down laws promoted by ALEC?

Tools of the plutocrats.

A fine piece, Beth, and I concur that ALEC’s activity (and degree of success) seems at least in part to be a result of an anemic media establishment that is itself far more interested in profit than in providing information that citizens can use, and / or that shine some light on how the society actually operates. If ACORN can be driven out of business by a couple of staged incidents that got massive media attention, ALEC ought to be getting some sustained time in the spotlight as well. So far, at least, that’s not happening.

There’s a certain perverse comfort in seeing that your first two comments are from people implying that ALEC’s activity is beyond reproach, while those who question it, or its motives, are somehow sullied by doing so. As usual, no direct accusations are make, simply innuendoes that don’t “muddle,” but instead turn logic on its head.

Laws that regulate corporations are unlikely to protect the general public when they’re written by the same corporations that are purportedly regulated. That it’s “legal” doesn’t make it “ethical.” “Legal” and “ethical” are not the same thing.

A group meeting in private and behind closed doors, and amply supplied with cash from corporate donors, is not “a group petitioning the government for redress of grievances” when that group includes representatives of that very government, and when the “grievances” consist of distaste for the practitioners of a profession. That is, unless you’re foolish enough to believe that corporations really ARE “people,” and that their influence on public policy is being drowned out by single ordinary citizens.

Even the most xenophobic border-dweller understands that deportation of illegal immigrants takes some time, if for no other reason than to prepare the paperwork. Since setting the illegal immigrant free while we prepare to deport him suggests less-than-stellar law enforcement, a private prison company could make quite a bit of money housing illegal immigrants, for relatively short periods, in its privately-owned prison cells.

Indeed, ALEC provides a not-at-all reassuring picture of the state of the American political process, whether the issue is educational policy or the return of serfdom. The operative term to describe what’s going on is “corruption,” or “sleaze” for those who prefer words with fewer syllables.

In case MinnPost's comments don't accept HTML:

I share your frustration, Beth, that there hasn't been more local coverage of ALEC, but I'd like to also point out a major omission:

The Minnesota Independent's Jon Collins has been doing yeoman's work here, first identifying Rep. Erik Paulsen's role with the group (he's a member of the federal affairs arm: http://ainn.ly/ozSp08), then working to identify the 30 or so ALEC members in the state legislature, including Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer: http://ainn.ly/pFQvMz; http://ainn.ly/qxGRO9) and the bills at the Capitol that have ALEC's fingerprints on them (http://ainn.ly/pw00JT).

You can follow Jon's continuing coverage here:
http://minnesotaindependent.com/tag/alec

ALEC spent tons of money getting the far-right governors of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Florida elected. In Minnesota, Mark Dayton was able to develop support well beyond that of ALEC member and candidate, Tom Emmer, and won the election.

We would otherwise, our public unions would have been trashed as were those in Wisconsin. And a city's mayor, elected officials and school board might have been fired by their governor and a corporate "manager" appointed as happened to a city of Michigan.

ALEC/Koch Brothers money propagandized ordinary, good-citizen Americans by convincing them that the gov'mint would "take away their guns," give us "socialized medicine," steal their hard-earned money by calling it taxation and giving it to those who "refuse to work" and other falsehoods that led to anger toward and resentment of government.

And voila, we had the Tea Party, whose members elected many politicians who now obstruct the work of Congress by tying any possible revenue to cuts in social spending, and will no doubt absolutely refuse to raise enough revenue to help the economy grow instead of shrink. For shrink it surely will and sink into a depression we surely will unless we start investing in education, infrastructure, small business and clean energy.

Hey Paul;

I am taking a pounding for this one on Facebook and in the blogosphere for this one. Yes, ALEC's doings were reported on blogs and on some smaller news sites, including yours. (And I don't mean to diminish anyone by saying small--I am with you in smallness.) And I am sorry that there are folks out there who don't feel like due credit's been given.

But I stand by the point I intended to make: There are several large, well-funded news media outlets in Minnesota that field both education reporters and state politics reporters, and none took note of this. MPR's website does contain a National Public Radio piece on ALEC, but that only made me wonder why it didn't get localized.

RE: Arizona Immigration Law. I think it's a misdemeanor. So they would have to be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Does ICE lock up non-felons? Does ICE use private prisons?

RE: Koch Brothers, non-Minnesotans. Ad hoc/ad hominem.

RE: Pounding on Facebook and blogosphere. How about answering my basic questions? Does asking pointed questions constitute "pounding"?

RE: #8 Ray. "first two comments are from people implying that ALEC’s activity is beyond reproach, while those who question it, or its motives, are somehow sullied by doing so." The article/opinions piece contained a lot of assumptions about both ALEC and Parents United. One could reverse "ALEC" and "those who question it" in your comment and it would be a perfect criticism of the article.

I appreciate that many people have already formed opinions about ALEC and this article causes them to say, "You go, girl." But that doesn't make it good journalism. Sorry.

This is the second article discussing ALEC's existence I've read recently. I'm glad to see more daylight being shed on this organization. It's a troubling exposé on the "outsourcing" of our legislative process to corporate interests.

From my corner of the world, as I watch the laws being enacted in the states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Florida, I am most troubled by the educational agenda being attempted and implemented. The cuts to education in these states appear very well-orchestrated and fully intentional. I read several months ago that those with less education typically vote Republican--such a painful irony, given that right-wing policies do not support the well-being of those who are less educated and correspondingly less well-to-do. If the current attacks on our education system--less emphasis on real science, manipulation of our history, and subtle inculcation of religion into the curriculum-- continue under the guise of the need for deficit reduction, we will witness an even more rapid decline of the American public school system than what we've seen heretofore. We need to support education as a long-term growth strategy. If we don't, I can only imagine the sad outcome of a growing & ill-informed electorate voting in support of an even more ill-advised legislative agenda that can't possibly right the wrongs facing us today.

Is there a published list of Alec members ? If so a link please. I'm curious about educational management people and wether their agenda is influenced.

ALEC is not new to the scene. I think it is under the spotlight now because their long-standing positions are becoming more accepted by a wider swath of the Republican Party than they had been previously.

For those of you who are interested in augmenting what you've read here from Beth, The Nation ran a series of articles on ALEC in their August 1/8, 2011, issue.

This group doesn't sound near as radical as the United Nations. Gees!

Oh, my....

I too had a group of "friends" over the other night sitting aroung the living room discussing ways to make our state government more transparent and citizen oriented. We discussed ways of enticing or convincing certain liberal's and conservative's in the State House and Senate to act more responsibly on behalf of the qualms we have with their governmentental initiatives or proposals, tax issues, school vouchers, and a whole host of other genuine concerns. Much in the same way as the members of ALEC apparently do. Guess we too should be targeted as well by our liberal friends who never seem to have a problem in the "hand-wringing" or "oversight" departments. Except, of course, when it comes to one of their own. Media Matters, anyone?