ALEC Unveils Annual Agenda of Anti-Consumer Laws
This is Part 1 of a two-part report on the American Legislative Exchange Council’s latest slate of model legislation, released after the group’s annual meeting earlier this month.
The American Legislative Exchange Council held its annual meeting in Chicago earlier this month. The conclave provides a venue for ALEC to disseminate model legislation to be carried back to state legislatures across the country. The group’s recent agenda to pass model laws written largely by its corporate funders reveals a renewed attack on consumer rights — from blocking pro-worker rights to stopping efforts to develop clean energy to making it harder for injured individuals to collect from a corporate wrongdoer.
ALEC connects well-funded corporations with state lawmakers who collaborate to pass model laws favoring those corporate interests. It is registered as a non-profit organization but critics say it’s goals are not charitable, serving only the private lobbying interests of its members.
ALEC’s annual meeting took place in Chicago’s posh Palmer House Hilton, an historic venue where Bill Clinton, Ulysses S. Grant and Prince Charles have stayed.
“It was a beautiful place to create some ugly legislation,” said Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, who was at the venue but was not allowed into ALEC’s meetings.
ALEC puts blinders on state sunshine laws
In addition to barring journalists, ALEC is also trying to keep secret from the public documentation of what is discussed at its meetings.
According to Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, earlier this year ALEC began stamping its documents with a disclaimer exempting them from all state public records laws. State open records or freedom of information laws, also known as “sunshine laws,” require that elected and appointed public officials maintain records of their official activities and make them open and available to the public.
“It’s really, really shocking,” Fischer said. “If you are attending a meeting on behalf of your state, on behalf of your constituents and meeting with lobbyists and groups influencing them, it’s only through open records requests that the public can find out who’s in the meeting, what legislation is discussed and whether those efforts translate into policy.”
The Center for Media and Democracy has made freedom of information requests to legislators in several states seeking documents related to ALEC meetings and has filed suit against two legislators.
Fischer’s organization is suing Wisconsin state Rep. Leah Vikmur, who is on ALEC’s national board of directors and is the ALEC state chair, to force her to comply with freedom of information requests for records from ALEC’s meeting in Oklahoma City on May 2-3.
In Texas, state legislator Stephanie Klick has refused comply with a request for records and asked the state attorney general to decide whether her documents related to ALEC meetings fall under the state open records law. ALEC’s lawyers argued that it was immune from the laws. Fischer said this is the first time ALEC taken a position on the issue. The Texas attorney general is expected to issue a decision next month.
State legislators who attend the meetings file for reimbursement of their travel expenses from ALEC.
“It creates an environment of excessive influence when [legislators’] nights at a really beautiful hotel and flights are paid for by the same corporate interests that are drafting legislation,” said Fischer, who added that a series of parties and excursions are paid for by corporate members, such as ALEC’s annual “cigar party” for which R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company picks up the tab.
Lawyers.com made several requests for a press pass to ALEC’s annual conference, which were rejected.
A call seeking comment for this story from ALEC’s model legislation contact person, Briana Mulder, was not returned.
Focus on States
ALEC’s focus on state lawmakers is a strategy that seems to get the most legislative bang for the buck.
“State legislators are easier to influence,” Fischer said.
“They have lower salaries [than at the federal level] and it’s easier to buy their influence with a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions.”
Focusing on key state lawmakers is also effective because in state legislatures, the leadership has a top-down approach to prioritizing legislative decisions, says Chris Hall, a Democratic state representative from Iowa.
In his state, the Democratic caucus voted to stop allowing the state government to fund reimburse membership in ALEC. This decision was made because of ALEC’s model legislation supporting voter ID laws, Stand Your Ground legislation, and certain “corporate tax give-aways,” Hall said.
“We didn’t believe — I don’t believe personally — that the legislation is really aimed at doing good for working families in the state,” he said.
Hall says that ALEC’s ability to roll the same model laws out in multiple states at the same time creates a perception that three issues they are pushing are mainstream.
“Voter ID is an excellent example of how that model can be effective,” Hall said. “When they move forward with actual legislation in multiple states at the same time, they are able to make the argument that they are in step with other states and not proposing renegade legislation,” he points out.
ALEC members in 37 state legislatures sponsored more than half of the 62 bills introduced in the past two years to require photo ID in order to vote, according to an NBC news investigation. At least 10 states have passed strict voter ID laws, even though the existence of voter fraud is miniscule.
In Iowa, the reason an ALEC voter ID law failed to pass is because the legislature is split with a Republican governor and House and a Democratic Senate, Hall added. ALEC’s legislative members are overwhelmingly Republican.
He said most voters are still not aware that a group like ALEC exists.
“If they knew that ALEC operates off of a corporate fee structure and the input for legislative advocacy comes from the largest corporate members, it might make more sense to people that the outcome of that will not be consumer-friendly and have a bent towards benefiting large business,” Hall said.
Tomorrow: We take a closer look at some model laws written by ALEC’s corporate members that are likely to make their way through state legislatures this year.