A few dozen activists and members of the Northern Illinois Light Brigade gathered near the Palmer House Hilton Thursday evening in an effort to shine some light, literally, on the pro-corporate and conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Thursday was day two of ALEC's 40th annual three-day conference, which is being held at the downtown hotel this week.
The light brigade illuminated large letter signs that read "Fight To End ALEC," and other slogans. The signs drew attention from curious people on the street as well as looks from likely ALEC members as they made their way in and out of the Palmer House.
Activist Bill Weiss, a Kirkland, Illinois resident, said ALEC creates legislation that hurts average people while filling the pockets of big corporations.
"As long as ALEC is allowed to continue to write our laws for us, they’re never going to be laws for the people," Weiss said. "They're always going to be laws for the corporations, and we can’t let that happen.”
ALEC is a right-wing association made up of more than 2,000 state legislators, mainly Republicans, and hundreds of corporate members who craft and approve legislation called “model” bills. Nearly all of ALEC's operations are funded by corporations and trade associations. The member legislators later introduce the ALEC-backed proposals in statehouses across the country.
The "nonpartisan" organization was instrumental in spreading the controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, which played a part in George Zimmerman's acquittal in the Florida shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Weiss said he and other ALEC opponents refer to the Stand Your Ground measure as "the right to murder law.”
ALEC also helped promote most of the restrictive Voter ID measures that popped up in 2011 and 2012.
Jim Coleman, a Chicago resident who held one of the light signs, called ALEC's activities "government behind the backs of the people."
"When you look at Stand Your Ground in all the states, the wording is exactly the same from state to state, because they gave them the bills already done," he said.
ALEC formed in 1973 and had enjoyed a low profile up until 2011 when a whistleblower leaked hundreds of the "model" bills. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a progressive watchdog group, obtained the documents and posted them on the website ALECexposed.org. Some of ALEC's model policies look to cut social safety net programs, deregulate health insurers, privatize education and limit rights for workers.
And in the words of activist Caro Gonzalez Kuehner Herbert, "They're taking every progress we've made for the environment and rolling it back.”
For example, ALEC has been pushing for hydraulic fracturing in states and has backed a resolution (PDF) to "retain state authority over hydraulic fracturing." The resolution says fracking should be regulated by states instead of by federal environmental and safety standards, such as the Safe Water Drinking Act.
“Who’s going to benefit,” Weiss asked. "Not the people. Ground water is going to get contaminated, but the gas and oil industries are going to walk away with all the profits.”
Although ALEC does not publish the names of it's 2,000 legislators online, it is very likely that Illinois State Rep. David Reis (R-Sainte Marie) is an active member.
He wrote a recent column, which he posted on his website, regarding the controversial fracking legislation, SB 1715, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law back in June. The column appeared in ALEC's July/August 2013 "Inside ALEC" publication, which can be read here (PDF).
From the column:
Considering the possibility of creating 45,000 new jobs, a state whose budget is hemorrhaging with red ink and with so much success in states like Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas and North Dakota, why has Illinois been so slow to jump on board? Enter the other side of the equation: Illinois politics and, more importantly, a heavy dose of environmental influence. Unlike other states that have experienced great success with fracking, Illinois is controlled by a majority of elected officials who are more concerned about pleasing environmental groups than growing Illinois’ struggling economy.
He goes on to write:
The well-funded energy development opposition, however — fueled by Hollywood celebrities like Josh Fox — continued to use inaccurate stories and hyped propaganda to move their agenda this session. The result was some very intense and passionate meetings in the Illinois legislature. In the end, the final product that passed the legislature in late May represents the strongest set of hydraulic fracturing regulations in the country. These regulations will not only protect property rights and the environment, but will also allow industry to invest, drill and grow in Illinois.
It’s been a long and passionate legislative battle between very diverse beliefs. When industry, business groups, labor unions, the Farm Bureau, environmental advocates, legislators, along with the Governor, state EPA Director and the Attorney General can all stand together at a press conference - I guess we did our job. It’s time to start drilling!
Critics of Illinois' fracking bill say it allows for a trade secret "loophole" that can potentially keep chemical-related information concealed. The "loophole" models the framework of ALEC's “Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act."
CMD issued a report Thursday that identified 466 ALEC-related proposals, some involving fracking, that were introduced in various states during the first six months of 2013, with 84 of them becoming law. Some of the introduced and enacted bills affect public education, hurt wages and public employees, privatize public services and make it harder for people to hold corporations accountable for causing injury or death.
The report identified four measures introduced in Illinois in 2013 that modeled ALEC's "Voter ID Act." Supporters of Voter ID laws say it helps prevent fraud, but its critics say it makes it harder for student, elderly, minority and disabled voters to cast ballots.
The sponsors of the House measure included State Reps. Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth), Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), Reis and Michael Unes (R-East Peoria). State Sens. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), Sam McCann (R-Carlinville), Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon), Jim Oberweis (R-Sugar Grove) and Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) were sponsors of some of the bills in the Senate.
During this week's conference, ALEC will reportedly take up new bills, some of which could delay or prevent payment to temporary workers, according to CMD, which obtained agenda-related documents via a Freedom of Information Act Request. ALEC is also slated to discuss more ways to push back against the idea of tethering the minimum wage to the consumer price index. Additionally, ALEC could consider proposals that would prevent a carbon tax and undermine renewable energy initiatives, CMD found.
The conference is rumored to include educational workshops for legislators on topics like expanding online schools and blocking GMO labeling. According to CMD, these efforts would boost profits for ALEC's corporate funders, specifically the for-profit charter company K12 Inc., and various agribusiness and chemical firms. (Read Progress Illinois' story about K12's attempts to roll out virtual charter schools in Illinois' suburbs here.)
Gonzalez Kuehner Herbert said the corporations connected to ALEC are "buying their way into making more money."
"They're buying their way into getting what they want," she said. "They’re like spoiled brats."