Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), corporations pay to bring state legislators to one place, sit them down for a sales pitch on policies that benefit the corporate bottom line, then push “model bills” for legislators to make law in their states. Corporations also vote behind closed doors alongside politicians on this wish list legislation through ALEC task forces. Notably absent from the recent ALEC meeting in New Orleans were the real people who would actually be affected by many of those bills and policies.
With legislators concentrated in one city, lobbyists descend on the conference to wine and dine elected officials after hours, a process simplified by legislators’ schedules being freed from home and family responsibilities. Multiple Wisconsin lobbyists for Koch Industries, the American Bail Coalition, Competitive Wisconsin, State Farm, Pfizer and Wal-Mart were in New Orleans, as were lobbyists for Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, Alliant Energy, and Johnson & Johnson. Corporations also sponsor invite-only events like the Reynolds American tobacco company’s cigar reception, attended by several Wisconsin legislators including Health and Human Services chair Leah Vukmir.
ALEC’s power lies not only in generating corporate-sponsored “model bills” for state legislators to make law, but in facilitating multiple levels of influence-peddling. ALEC itself has a $7 million budget and 32 staffers. In addition to this budget, ALEC technically acts as an intermediary for about $1 million in travel “scholarships” that pay for many legislators’ trips to ALEC meetings, with corporate funds for the scholarships held in trust by ALEC. With corporate “sponsorship” of ALEC meetings, a couple million dollars flow through ALEC to put on days of workshops, meetings and festivities. (This does not account for the dollars corporations spend for lobbyists to prepare for and meet with ALEC legislators in pursuit of their legislative agenda, nor does it take into account any campaign contributions that might result from the relationships cultivated at ALEC meetings.)
Which is why ALEC national chair and Louisiana Rep. Noble Ellington told attendees at the beginning of the conference, “When you see a sponsor, thank them” for their generosity and that “without them, we could not come close to doing the things we are about to do.”
The legislative sausage is ground at the task force meetings, where a body of legislators and corporate lobbyists actually vote on proposed model legislation. The meetings were closed to the press and the public. While legislators can bring proposed bills to the meetings, “the majority of proposed model bills I saw came from corporations,” says Jeff Wright, a Florida teacher’s union member who paid to attend the conference to observe ALEC in action. As task force members discussed and voted on proposed legislation, in the sessions Wright observed “the corporations and think tanks absolutely controlled the debate,” he said. This does not mean corporate members always agree — Wright said a Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force meeting included a dispute between online sellers like Amazon and brick-and-mortar retailers like Best Buy about taxing online sales.
“In order for model legislation to move forward,” says Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who attended the ALEC meeting and wrote about it for The Progressive magazine, “each task force must garner a majority of votes from each HALF. For example, if the legislator half likes an idea, but the corporate half doesn’t, the bill does NOT move forward,” which actually happened in a task force Rep. Pocan attended.
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ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber notes that a piece of model legislation passed by the task force still must be approved by the 22-person board of directors, all of whom are legislators (and all of whom are Republicans). Nothing that the legislative board votes on, however, gets to the board unless the corporate wing of each task force has voted in favor of it. The ALECexposed.org site launched by the Center for Media and Democracy in July demonstrates that over 800 bills and resolutions voted for by corporations have been ratified by the ALEC legislators selected for its board. ALEC’s chair, Ellington, told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross that even if the public (and the press) are not allowed inside the task force and board meetings, “We represent the public, and we are the ones who decide. So the tax-paying public is represented there at the table, because I’m there.”
At the 2011 ALEC meeting, Ellington was there, as were others who fit his demographic profile. Very, very few African-Americans or Latinos were present. “Wisdom can come from years, and it is not impossible to imagine aged white males being able to represent the interests of a diverse constituency,” said the Rev. Dr. Willie Gable, pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church and president of the Inter-Denominational Ministry Alliance of New Orleans, where the ALEC conference was held (a city that is 67 percent African-American). “But too often legislators work in a vacuum, and have little experience with other populations in their state,” he said. Even if corporations are partnering with legislators who agree with (or can be influenced by) their interests or ideology, Gable continued, “if they are not bringing in, listening to, or considering the voices of a diverse public, they are not preparing legislation for the masses, but for themselves and corporations.”
The polling place restriction labeled as “voter ID” is one example of an ALEC initiative that predominantly affects those who were not represented at ALEC meetings. Like many other states in 2011, Wisconsin passed a bill earlier this year that echoes the ALEC legislation and will disproportionately impact people of color: More than half of Wisconsin’s African-American and Latino residents do not have a driver’s license or photo ID, but do have proof of residency that has traditionally been accepted at polling places. College students and the elderly will also be affected.
Offering a free ID does little to remedy these issues — the problem is not the cost of ID but the obstacles to obtaining it. States like South Carolina are finding that tens of thousands of largely African-American elderly residents don’t have the birth certificate necessary to receive an ID because they were born in their rural homes. In cities like Milwaukee with few Department of Motor Vehicles offices, acquiring an ID just so a person can vote requires taking a day off work and a long bus ride, a burden that leaders like Jesse Jackson have called akin to a “poll tax.”
ALEC’s Weber notes that even if a “model bill” is created without the input of certain stakeholders, it still must pass through the legislative process, at which point the non-corporate voices absent from the ALEC conference can be heard. But the Wisconsin experience suggests otherwise, with resident Nicole Schulte observing: “The fact that there is a superficial chance for public input (once a bill is introduced) makes no difference” when partisan politicians are determined to force through legislation despite public opposition. Schulte participated in hearings against Wisconsin’s ALEC-influenced voter ID law, saying that “despite the Legislature hearing from the public,” efforts to ameliorate the effect of the bill were thwarted in party-line votes against compromises and amendments.
Indeed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an ALEC alum and the 2011 recipient of ALEC’s highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award, repeatedly praised the power of obstinance, proclaiming to ALEC members that when legislating, “it pays to be stubborn.”
He added, “I don’t care what china we break in the process.”
Brendan M. Fischer is a Center for Media and Democracy law fellow and a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School (class of 2012). This column ran first on the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch website.