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Getting lawmakers on the record about ALEC

A brief history of the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council, and how to make it a bit less so.

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.

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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.