In the first six months of 2013, 466 pieces of ALEC-backed legislation promoting the agenda of “polluters, privatizers, and profiteers” were introduced in statehouses across the country, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Progress Illinois takes a closer look at ALEC and the legislation for which it advocates.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) kicked off its 40th national three-day conference at Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton on Wednesday, but the group’s critics say the anniversary is nothing to rejoice about.
In the first six months of 2013, 466 pieces of ALEC-backed legislation promoting the agenda of “polluters, privatizers, and profiteers” were introduced in statehouses across the country, according to a report (PDF) released Thursday by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
“Just like 40 years of ALEC, these bills are nothing to celebrate,” said CMD’s general counsel Brendan Fischer on a conference call with reporters. “They enlarge corporate profits at the expense of the rest of us, and the bills have the real effect of making us less secure, worse educated and more unhealthy.”
According to the report, 117 versions of ALEC bills introduced this year impact wages and workers rights. Fourteen of them have become law. Controversial “Right to Work” legislation pushed by ALEC was also introduced in 15 states this year, including Illinois’ own HB 3160, sponsored by State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton). The bill is currently sitting in the rules committee.
Bob Reiter, secretary treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said efforts to “weaken unions and hold working people back” have been seen in states across the Midwest, including Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“Meanwhile, the middle class is the smallest it’s been in generations, and income inequality is rising to unprecedented levels,” he said. “This is everything that is wrong with America, and ALEC, this is everything they’re fighting for.”
The new report also identified 139 ALEC-modeled education bills introduced in 43 states and the District of Columbia this year, with 31 of them becoming law. The goal of ALEC’s “Great Schools Tax Credit Act,” for example, is to direct more taxpayer funds to for-profit private schools. Versions of the proposal were introduced in 10 states.
Illinois passed two bills related to ALEC’s “Alternative Certification Act,” which allows individuals with subject-matter experience, but no background in education, to obtain teaching credentials. According to the report, these measures are part of a larger agenda to “undermine unionized workers and promote a race to the bottom in wages and benefits for American workers.”
The two education bills that were signed into law this year in Illinois are HB 1868, sponsored by State Rep. Michael Unes (R-East Peoria) and Sen. John Sullivan (D-Rushville), and HB 513, sponsored by State Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Chicago Heights) and Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields).
ALEC is a conservative association made up of more than 2,000 state legislators, mostly Republicans, and hundreds of corporate members who meet up to hash out and approve legislation called “model” bills.
Nearly all of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations, corporate foundations and trade associations. Some of the corporations rumored to be members of ALEC’s various “task forces,” which develop the model policies, include BP, Chevron, FedEx, Pfizer, Phillip Morris and Yahoo!, to name a few.
Participating legislators later introduce the ALEC-backed, pro-corporate proposals in their state. ALEC claims on its website that 1,000 versions of their model bills are introduced in states each year, with 20 percent of them, on average, being later enacted into law.
When the measures are brought up in statehouses, however, there is usually very little if any disclosure about the origins of the bills, some of which support privatized education, undermine environmental protections, oppose health insurance reform, diminish public sector unions and expand the use of guns.
The Washington, D.C.-based group, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, meaning it doesn’t pay federal income tax. ALEC maintains that it serves as the “state legislators’ think tank,” providing lawmakers with research, policy analysis and other forms of education. Corporate donations, which are tax deductible, cover legislators’ trips to ALEC’s annual conferences, including this year’s event in Chicago, as part of the group’s secretive multi-million dollar "scholarship fund," according to Common Cause and CMD.
The two watchdog groups submitted a joint letter to the IRS commissioner (PDF) on Monday charging ALEC with filing deceptive tax returns that “massively underreported and grossly misrepresented” its scholarship fund. They also allege ALEC is operating the fund in violation of the non-profit’s tax-exempt status.
According to Fischer, the groups have not received any word yet from the IRS on the matter.
ALEC originally formed in Chicago back in 1973. Former U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R, IL-6), who died in 2007, was one of ALEC’s founding members. At the time of ALEC’s creation, however, Hyde served as an Illinois state representative.
Hyde was elected to the U.S. House in 1974. The anti-choice representative is well known for sponsoring the original “Hyde Amendment” that Congress passed in 1976 banning the use of federal funds to cover abortions, except in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment. Hyde’s measure, which is still in effect today, disproportionately impacts low-income women, as the measure restricts the use of Medicaid funds for the procedure.
Until recently, the “nonpartisan” ALEC association, which works to promote the “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty,” operated out of the spotlight with the specifics of its model legislation kept under wraps. That changed in 2011, when hundreds of ALEC model bills and other documents were leaked by a whistleblower. The documents were obtained by CMD, which posted all of them on the website alecexposed.org.
According to CMD, ALEC has also recently started stamping legislation and materials it gives to lawmakers as exempt from state open records laws in an attempt, critics say, to keep its activities private. CMD filed a lawsuit in early June against Republican Wisconsin State Sen. Leah Vukmir, an ALEC member and treasurer of its national board, after she failed to release ALEC-related documents under Wisconsin's public records law.
The right-wing policy group has come under scrutiny from activists more recently over its promotion of the controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, which played a role in George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Florida shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
Protestors, many dressed in hoodies, staged a “die in” outside the Palmer House Wednesday to push back against Stand Your Ground laws.
The behind-the-scenes conservative group also pushed for a barrage of discriminatory Voter ID laws that make it harder for student, elderly, minority and disabled voters to cast ballots.
From 2011 to 2012, lawmakers in 37 states introduced legislation that resembled ALEC’s model “Voter ID Act,” which the group approved in 2009.
The civil rights group ColorOfChange launched a campaign against ALEC following the latest flurry of ALEC-backed Voter ID laws.
“ALEC is the antithesis of democracy working for everyone," said ColorOfChange’s Executive Director Rashad Robinson. "Through their years of backroom deals with corporations and state legislators, they have effectively put black folks and our communities in harms way.”
The public attention put on ALEC’s promotion of Voter ID and Stand Your Ground laws spurred 49 big American corporations such as Coca-Cola, General Motors and Walmart, to end their membership with the organization thus far.
ALEC later did away with its controversial Public Safety and Elections Task Force, which originally adopted the measures, in 2012. But “the damage has already been done,” Fischer said, because the bills continue to be introduced in states across the country. For example, 10 Stand Your Ground bills and 52 Voter ID bills were considered in states across the country during the first six months of 2013. According to CMD’s report, five states (Arkansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia) passed additional Voter ID restrictions, while two states (Alabama and Alaska) adopted Stand Your Ground laws in 2013.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) came up with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in 2005 and then brought it to ALEC to promote.
“These stand your ground laws still exist all around the country,” Robinson added. “They continue to put our communities in harms way, and ALEC is absolutely responsible for them being on the book(s).”
Wisconsin State Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat, recently joined ALEC. Chicago's meeting is the first conference she has attended.
She said gun-related and Voter ID legislation is not appearing on the agenda. But, she added, that doesn’t mean it is not being discussed “behind closed doors.” The NRA, according to Taylor, has one of the biggest booths in the convention hall at Chicago's conference. Groups promoting Voter ID laws also have booths, she noted.
Thursday's report from CMD also identified 77 bills introduced this year, 17 of which became law, that promoted the fossil fuel industry and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Some measures also looked to roll back or weaken renewable portfolio standards, while others supported the contentious Keystone XL pipeline. Nine states also introduced variations of ALEC’s “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act”, which would criminalize those who document abuses on factory farms.
Illinois State Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) introduced a version of ALEC’s “Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act,” which, according to the report, would actually make it more difficult for the public to find out what chemicals are being used in the fracking process. According to the report, the measure was first brought to ALEC by Exxon Mobil, and it includes a trade secret "loophole" that can potentially keep chemical-related information hidden.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed a separate controversial measure, SB 1715, back in June that outlines provisions for companies looking to do hydraulic fracturing in Illinois. The bill is not cited in the report as an ALEC-backed measure, but critics of the bill say the legislation allows for the same types of disclosure loopholes. Nonetheless, Quinn signed the bill despite fierce opposition from activists who said the law does not provide enough environmental and public health protections.
Another 71 ALEC-related bills were introduced this year, with 14 becoming law, that make it more difficult for citizens to access the courts. These “tort reform” bills pushed by ALEC cap damages, limit corporate liability and make it more challenging to bring up a lawsuit, the report noted. Seven bills involving “tort reform” were introduced in Illinois, according to the report, but none were adopted.
Overall, there “definitely” is a “shroud of secrecy” around this week’s conference, Taylor noted.
There are very little members of the media at the conference, and participants have to keep their name badges on at all times. Taylor has been able to attend and observe the various meetings and workshops, but she thinks "people are keeping an eye on her" because she is a more progressive Democrat.
Taylor has observed “these special interest groups that are providing the thinking and the strategy about how to minimize government and how to maximize profits for the private sector.”
She called it "troubling" that thus far there has been little discussion at the conference about what is best for the average person.
“There’s such little concern about actual people," Taylor said. "People are almost never mentioned. It’s all about freedom, as they define freedom. It’s all about corporations being able to do what they need to do to make profits, and it’s all about minimizing and incapacitating government, because in their view, government doesn’t do anything well.”
An anti-ALEC rally sponsored by the Chicago Federation of Labor kicked off outside the Palmer House at noon today. Check back with Progress Illinois for our coverage of the rally. Follow Progress Illinois on Twitter @progressIL for updates on the ongoing ALEC protests this week.