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The Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation

in
September, 2011

What is the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC), and why should we be concerned about this group?

ALEC is best described as a “bill mill” for corporate special interest legislation. Through ALEC, corporations vote behind closed doors with state legislators on changes to the law they desire that often directly benefit their bottom line. Along with right-wing legislators from across the country, corporations are given “a voice and a vote” on “model” bills to change the law in almost every area affecting people’s rights. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces. They fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. They have their own corporate governing board. They vote as equals with legislators to pre-approve legislation. Participating politicians then bring these bills home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing their origins in ALEC. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. We agree. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door. This is not what democracy is supposed to look like.

How did the Center for Media and Democracy obtain ALEC documents?

The details of most of ALEC’s model bills have been available only to the group’s 2,000 legislative and 300 corporate members and their staff. But thanks to a leak by a concerned whistleblower, these materials were given to CMD and The Nation magazine simultaneously.

On July 13, 2011, CMD unveiled a trove of over 800 bills and resolutions secretly voted on by ALEC corporations and politicians behind closed doors. Before the launch of ALECexposed.org, it was difficult for the public to trace the numerous controversial and extreme provisions popping up in legislatures across the country directly to ALEC and its corporate underwriters. This task has been made much easier and hundreds of citizens have contributed to our website by sharing leads and tips on ALEC bills and legislators in their states.

ALEC Exposed was a very big project for our little NGO. We were determined to ensure that the public would be able to read and help analyze these documents which affect Americans in every state as this corporate agenda has been stealthily advanced. We knew that, with some of the richest people and corporations in the world (Koch Industries, RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, PhRMA) advancing their agenda through ALEC, taking on this fight was not without risks of the variety of ways those interests might attempt to retaliate for the unwanted exposure. Rather just posting them to a server in Iceland, we took on the arduous work of analyzing them and contextualizing them so that others would be empowered to expose the workings of this group in legislatures across the country and in Congress.


What kinds of materials were leaked to you, and how did you go about analyzing this information?

The vast majority of ALEC bills and resolutions going back to 1998 were leaked to us, well over 800 of them. In addition to our own in-house expertise on some of the substantive issues in the legislation, we convened six issue-area experts to help us analyze and mark up the bills and resolutions to aid the public in deciphering them. We created hundreds of new profiles about the corporations and politicians involved in our interactive Sourcewatch wiki, along with writing original pieces analyzing key aspects of the organization, such as ALEC and tort reform, ALEC and immigration, ALEC and big tobacco, ALEC in Wisconsin and ALEC’s connection to the Koch brothers.

Over the course of two months, CMD staff and volunteers prepared the bills for unveiling on our website, which we designed to help make tracking the legislation and legislators as interactive and as easy as possible. We thought it was essential that the bills be accompanied by the key reference material our team compiled, including information on the profits and political activities of ALEC CORPORATIONS and their CEOs as well as on ALEC POLITICIANS, the corporate and political membership of the ALEC TASK FORCES, and the ALEC FUNDERS over time, plus other material designed to enable a wave of additional reporting.

We initially published a list of over 300 ALEC members, but now, thanks to volunteers and friends, we now have compiled some 1,500 documented ALEC members with information to help people connect them to the ALEC corporate agenda.

How did the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine work together to expose ALEC?

While CMD was handed the bills with the expectation that we would take the lead in making them public, The Nation was contacted with the expectation that they would take the lead in breaking the story. Fortunately, there are close ties between both organizations and we quickly agreed on a division of labor. We agreed that the best way to handle the trove of materials was to tap a number of experts for a special edition. The Nation’s ALEC Exposed edition delved into six key issue areas; the attacks on worker rights and federal health care reform, disenfranchisement through Voter ID bills, the Koch Brothers’ agenda (Koch Industries has long served on the board of ALEC), and the agenda to privatize K-12 schools.

This excellent analysis was the tip of the iceberg – 800 bills, 300 corporations, 2,000 legislators, and 50 states is a lot of ground to cover. Never before has the extreme right controlled so many statehouses. Never before has ALEC had so many members. Never before have ALEC legislators been able to ram through so many bills in such a short time. We hope that journalist and citizen reporters will continue to track these bills and report on them in the months to come.

What advice do you have for other organizations looking to do large-scale collaborative investigations like this one?

Know your experts. CMD was in the fortunate position of being very well-connected in a college town with many experts we knew as close personal friends or we had talked to over the years. So we tapped Joel Rogers and Laura Dresser at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a workforce think tank, for help with the hundreds of ALEC anti-union bills, privatization bills and tax bills. Joel has been a critic of ALEC for 30 years and more than once attempted to set up a counter to ALEC. We tapped University of Wisconsin Dean, Julie Underwood, to analyze the plethora of school privatization bills. Julie litigated every school choice case in the nation on behalf of public educators. We also tapped friends who worked in the Wisconsin legislature for many years, who would rather not be named, for help with many of the bills. It was definitely a true “cheesehead” operation.

It made sense that this project be rooted in Wisconsin. With ALEC alum Scott Walker as the state’s new governor and “men from ALEC” in every top leadership position in the state legislature (including the heads of both the Senate and the Assembly and both heads of the powerful Joint Finance Committee), at CMD we had witnessed and reported on the controversies over collective bargaining, tort reform, Voter ID, immigration, expanded school vouchers and extraordinary tax breaks for big business – even out-of-state tobacco companies. We suspected, but could not confirm, that many of these measures were ALEC inspired. Now with the ALEC archive we have identified 22 ALEC bills in the state.


What's the latest on ALEC? Have there been any major developments since the stories ran?

Since CMD launched ALECexposed.org, hundreds of news organizations around the country have used the resource to identify ALEC's influence in their state and national watchdog groups have tracked campaign donation by ALEC's member corporations. These are some highlights:

Newspapers like The Arizona Republic looked at the ties between ALEC, the private prison industry, and state legislators, and the Minnesota Independent identified ALEC state legislators and investigated ALEC state ethics violations. States like Florida and Alaska have taken a closer look at state legislators who travel to ALEC meetings on the public dime. Truthout used the resource to identify ALEC bills around the country. Pennsylvania's Keystone Progress assembled a comprehensive report on ALEC members in their state and the ALEC bills they have introduced and received huge press in their state. Bloomberg produced a series of articles analyzing ALEC model legislation and the group's financial records. The LA Times focused on ALEC’s environmental record. Common Cause asked the IRS to investigate ALEC for lobbying in violation of its 501(c)(3) status. Common Cause also investigated contributions by ALEC corporations, and ProPublica produced a searchable online data base of ALEC campaign contributions.

These efforts show the tremendous energy and enthusiasm with which groups affected by the ALEC agenda have approached broadening and deepening public awareness of the group and its activities in state legislatures and in Congress. More research and public outreach is in progress nationally and in states across the country, with new stories breaking that document the ALEC influence and corporate impact on laws and leaders every week.

 

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