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Getting lawmakers on the record about ALEC

If you’ve been following news of the American Legislative Exchange Council, you can skip this first paragraph. If you are new the the organization, better known as ALEC, here’s the elevator version: Funded by member fees, including those paid paid by hundreds of conservative state lawmakers, the national organization works with corporate stakeholders to craft “model legislation” for its legislative members. It’s a secretive organization that guards its member list closely. If a lawmaker doesn’t announce an affiliation, there is no easy way to find out about it. For a more robust backgrounder, click away.

Way back in October 2010, Sally Jo Sorensen of the blog Bluestem Prairie asked, “When will Minnesota’s crack political press corps even bother to ask which Minnesota legislators are members?” Yesterday, MinnPost education reporter Beth Hawkins echoed Sorensen’s call:

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.

Four decades of influence
If you’ve only read the headlines or skimmed the articles about ALEC’s influence on Minnesota and state governments nationwide, you’d be forgiven for assuming this was some new organization riding the conservative wave into the halls of power.

In fact, the organizations was launched in 1973. According to an Associated Press story on the first conference, in 1974, there were 400 “mainly Republican” state legislators from 23 states.

In 1978, ALEC co-sponsored the first national “Tax-Limitation Conference” in Lincolnshire, Ill. An Associated Press story on that gathering put the head count at “200 legislators, executives, and conservative political activists.” Attendees were treated to a lecture by economist Milton Friedman. Connie Campanella, who worked with ALEC at the time, insisted, “This is only a small part of the conservative movement. This is a growing, more sophisticated movement than ever before.”

“Your energy and your ideas and your enthusiasm helped lead the ideological transformation of America,” George H.W. Bush told attendees at an ALEC conference in 1992. A little later in his address, this:

Look, ultimately—you know this; the men and women of ALEC know this—I believe the only way to get the budget deficit under control, the major disciplinary tool, is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. You at ALEC have done for the amendment what Rush Limbaugh has done for the art of passionate communication.

A Mother Jones article in 2002 noted that “roughly one third” of the nation’s state lawmakers were ALEC members and reported the organization’s claim that “members introduced more than 3,100 bills based on its models, passing 450 into law.”

Fast forward to the session that just ended in Minnesota. Common Cause traces four bills to their ALEC roots, including the Voter ID bill and the so-called Cheeseburger bill.

A public effort to get lawmakers on the record about ALEC
Going through four decades of ALEC coverage, the echo again and again was of a bold voice, determined to produce bold legislation. It makes all of the secrecy around the organization seem a little counterintuitive. When backing bold moves and following bold voices, why not be, well, bold about it? State Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, ALEC’s Minnesota Chair, spoke boldly to the Minnesota Independent last week, but she is an exception.

There is an effort over at Minnesota Independent to identify lawmakers with ALEC affiliations. They are building on a list of 21 state politicians published by a project called ALEC Exposed. Here at The Intelligencer, I’m working toward a similar goal, but with a very different approach.

I’ll be calling every first-term legislator and asking them to go on the record about their affiliation (or lack of affiliation) with ALEC. Whether I am met with silence or disclosure, you’ll know. In keeping with the transparency goals of my larger first-term lawmaker project, I’ll be updating a public contact log. You’ll know who I’ve contacted, when, and how often.

Why focus only on first-term lawmakers here? I’m interested in how legislators new to the scene make the ALEC connection. With so many new to Minnesota’s House and Senate, we have a unique opportunity to illuminate the early influences on state politicians.

If your representative is on my list, you might want to reach out yourself. If you make a connection before I do, please tell me all about it using the simple form I posted last week (it will be used throughout this project).

As always, your feedback and further story ideas are welcomed.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/09/2011 - 09:47 am.

    Nice work, Jeff, and an excellent rhetorical question: If you’re going to be a “bold” voice, proposing “bold” legislation, why try to keep the organization a secret?

  2. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 08/09/2011 - 09:48 am.

    In May I posted a short piece on MN2020 that identifies ALEC as a source for the voter ID legislation in MN. Good work on this article.

  3. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 08/09/2011 - 10:36 am.

    Best wishes in your endeavor. Once you get all the responses, I hope you will also answer the question of what “members” do other than going to conferences. I didn’t click on all of your links, but I am still in the dark about that. Once we know someone is a member, we then know that they are ____________.

    This article is better than Beth Hawkins’ from yesterday, but you included her most outrageous quote. If the First Amendment does not protect the activities you ascribe to ALEC, then it protects nothing. Everything that you say about ALEC seems like it is petitioning the government for redress of grievances. If there are animal sacrifices or check kiting schemes alleged somewhere in one of the links, please say so.

    I would also question whether this is different from other model legislation. The Uniform Commercial Code is but one prominent example. US Public Interest Research Group has pushed model state “bottle bills” requiring deposits on soft drink containers, as well as anti-SLAPP legislation. Jon Bowser Bauman, formerly of Sha Na Na, has gone from state to state promoting the “Truth in Music Act” to protect former members of singing groups — like Bauman himself.

    If you say that this is different because corporations are involved, how is that different? It may boil down to differing views of capitalism. That is a worthwhile discussion, but hardly the scandal that you make it out to be.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/09/2011 - 11:52 am.

    Peter Swanson makes a salient point, but also doesn’t, given the participants in ALEC conferences and the financial resources behind them. I’ll give this a try…

    How do you feel about corporate governance, Peter?

    If your view of the preceding is sanguine, I invite you to name 5 Fortune 500 companies that operate democratically. Or, if you prefer, name 5 Fortune 500 companies that allow their employees the same freedom of speech regarding corporate activities that the Constitution provides in the political arena outside the workplace.

    Indeed, differing views of capitalism – specifically, industrial and corporate capitalism – are involved. By nature and definition, corporations are sociopathic. Most other politically-oriented organizations, even ALEC in some respects, are not.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/09/2011 - 11:55 am.

    @Peter, I do not expect to learn about animal sacrifices or anything like that. And that’s the thing: Why the secrecy? Nothing ALEC is pushing surprises me (and nobody else should be surprised either). These are pro-business people pushing a pro-business agenda. That’s what pro-business people do. All sorts of organizations push “model bills” from all points of the liberal/conservative continuum. This is how the sausage is made.

    And to be clear, I’m not looking merely to confirm membership, because that leaves exactly the question you pose. What I want to do is demystify the whole thing. And pulling back what seems to me to be a wholly unnecessary veil is part of that.

  6. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 08/09/2011 - 12:23 pm.

    #3 is right. the members of ALEC do have the First Amendment right to speech. If the legislators who get their legislative wordings from meetings with corporate members at ALEC proudly stated that an ALEC meeting was their source, rather than standing at microphones saying “the American People” or “the people of Minnesota” want this, I would have no problem with them or ALEC. We know who is pushing the ‘bottle bill’ and the ‘Truth in Music Act’ you mention.
    It is time that we know every time ALEC is pushing a bill. Speak out, legislators and congresspeople. Tell us the source of and initial support for every bill and then listen to ‘the American people’ and ‘the people of Minnesota’ before you tell us ‘we’ support it.
    It’s the 30 years of behind closed doors secrecy of ALEC that is not only troubling, it is dishonest. Time to throw a big, bright light on it. Thank you to everyone who is working to bring this organization and its influence into the public eye.

  7. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/09/2011 - 12:25 pm.

    If progressive bloggers want mainstream media to cover ALEC in the MN state house then perhaps they shouldn’t bark at those who email them asking for help is directing them to that information. I wanted to write a column about Drazkowski and ALEC for the Rochester PB and that is what happened to me. I was blown off by one and I told that I was exploiting their labor or some such by another — oh and my paper was roundly disparaged, “my paper” from whom I extract a monthly guest columnist stipend that couldn’t cover the cost of a dinner and movie date. I split the time doing that gig with cleaning my garage, prog-blogger-person. For the record, I wrote Drazkowski and Benson and asked them directly and they of course blew me off. I may still write it though…

  8. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 08/09/2011 - 01:46 pm.

    ALEC has a veil of secrecy because the corporate world has learned over these many years of effort to regain their pre-New Deal political power, that the public is uncomfortable with corporate political influence. They are very careful to operate under the radar of public awareness. Transparency about this organization brings to light all sorts of things they don’t want the public to know.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/09/2011 - 05:56 pm.

    Peter: ALEC meets in secret because it doesn’t want the American people to know what it’s up to. Its 22-member corporate “private enterprise board” has, with members from state legislatures, written over 800 pieces of boiler-plate legislation that members introduce. Some 180 are passed in state legislatures per year per Public Citizen.

    Common Cause president Bob Edgar says, “ALEC is a stunning example of how deeply corporate influence penetrates our democracy and undermines the public interest.” Its agenda is to privatize the public good ( e.g., schools, prisons) and to kill anything that interferes with profit in order to protect the citizenry (the EPA, for instance) so as to serve corporate interests instead of those of the people.

    No wonder they meet in secret and state legislators try not to let the public know they belong to such a group.

    One organization (Public Citizen, Common Cause or the ACLU) has asked the Justice Department to investigate ALEC’s claim that it deserves tax-exempt status — considering that it writes bills favoring their wishes and spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to help elect those legislators who will vote for them.

  10. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 08/09/2011 - 06:53 pm.

    Paul Scott: If you want to pursue Drazkowski’s connection to ALEC, here’s a place to start. HF1563 (Drazkowski, Zellers, Wardlow, McElfatrick, Banaian, Dean, Kiffmeyer, Lohmer, others) Resolution calling for a constitutional convention to adopt an amendment permitting the states to overturn federal laws. It’s drawn directly from ALEC model legislation.

  11. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/10/2011 - 08:09 am.

    Thanks Aaron, I had seen that. The tenther bill. The entire windy Jeffersonian preamble is a cut and paste job. Can you believe you can put your name over bills in the MN house that you did not write? Isn’t that, I don’t know, plagiarism?

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