-- by Lisa Graves and Brendan Fischer
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) will gather state legislators and corporate interests this week in Washington, DC, to craft a corporate-friendly legislative agenda for the coming year. Below we address some common spin from ALEC and its supporters so reporters and citizens don't get fooled.
MYTH: ALEC Is "Transparent"
ALEC claims it has made "great strides" in the realm of transparency. -- John Piscopo (R-CT), ALEC National Chair and a Connecticut state legislator, The Hill, Nov. 1, 2013.
FACT: ALEC Goes to Great Lengths to Hide its Activities and Funders
ALEC has gone to great lengths to hide its activities and corporate funders and authors of bills it wants legislators to introduce. This year, ALEC began stamping the materials it gives to legislators with a "disclaimer" asserting that the documents are not subject to any state's open records/freedom of information laws, despite the laws in many states that have long required lawmakers to disclose communications from outside groups and constituents.
ALEC has also been sending model legislation and meeting agendas via an online dropbox, which it admitted was an effort to try to avoid disclosure under some state open records laws, which require disclosure of communications in the possession of lawmakers (using the clicking of a link to avoid possession).
In Texas, ALEC formally asked that its communications with lawmakers be exempt from the state's Public Information Act, making the absurd claim that sunshine laws threaten its "freedom of association" rights to communicate with lawmakers about legislations and other matters, despite longstanding Texas sunshine laws to the contrary. Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, rejected this claim in September.
In Wisconsin, Sen. Leah Vukmir, the Treasurer of ALEC's National Board, invoked a radical interpretation of legislative privilege to try avoiding an open records lawsuit demanding that she disclose ALEC-related records.
Although this past month ALEC began posting task force agendas and the bills under consideration, those agendas differ dramatically from ones previously obtained through open records requests to lawmakers, which revealed which corporation or special interest group (such as a State Policy Network "think tank") drafted or sought the bill to be voted on by corporate lobbyists and lawmakers at ALEC's closed-door task force meetings.
ALEC posting of these stripped-down bills is redundant, after the Center for Media and Democracy analyzed more than 800 ALEC bills at ALECexposed.org, along with information about the legislators, corporate lobbyists, and special interest groups that have pushed ALEC's legislative agenda. It is also duplicative of materials that Common Cause and CMD have obtained through open records requests, despite ALEC's efforts to prevent the traditional application of such laws, through demanding that lawmakers inform ALEC of any open records request and follow its claim that its communications are exempt from the application of the law.
MYTH: ALEC Meetings Are Open
"ALEC meetings are open to the press and public." -- House Speaker William Howell (R-VA), ALEC's National Chair in 2009, Richmond Times Dispatch, January 2012
FACT: ALEC Continues to Bar Some Media from Meetings and All Media from the Task Force Meetings Where Corporate Lobbyists Vote as Equals with State Legislators
ALEC bars the press from attending its task force meetings where model bills are discussed, amended, and voted on by unelected corporate lobbyists and special interest group reps voting as equals with state legislators. For example, the Toronto Star and others have been barred from seeing those votes.
Select media have been allowed to hear keynote addresses from politicians and to attend "workshops," but ALEC has denied press credentials to news outlets including Al Jazeera, The Nation, and Think Progress. Hotel security has even accosted and questioned credentialed press speaking to other reporters without credentials or interviewing protestors, such as the Toronto Star and the Arizona Republic.
A document from ALEC's spring meeting featured the faces of reporters, researchers, and activists who have been critical of ALEC, including CMD staffers, distributing a "most wanted list" presumably used to ensure that only friendly press can observe ALEC's proceedings or public spaces in hotels.
MYTH: ALEC Is Not a Lobbying Organization
"ALEC does not lobby." -- Alan Dye, ALEC's lawyer, Business Week, May 3, 2012
"ALEC is a non-partisan resource for its members ... but does not lobby in any state" -- ALEC website, "Frequently Asked Questions"
FACT: Numerous Documents Show ALEC Lobbying Lawmakers
ALEC exists to facilitate corporate lobbying of state lawmakers, and itself engages in a significant amount of lobbying, while claiming repeatedly to the IRS that it spends not a penny on lobbying.
For years, ALEC urged the passage of ALEC model legislation (or the defeat of bills that counter ALEC legislation). Common Cause and Center for Media and Democracy have documented numerous examples of ALEC asking legislators to support a specific piece of legislation, in addition to its bylaws which make it a "duty" for state legislative leaders of ALEC to get ALEC bills introduced, as CMD has documented.
In one of many ALEC alerts sent to lawmakers, ALEC instructs Arizona legislators considering a change to civil appeal laws that "ALEC strongly supports this legislation, which is based on its own model legislation." In another, ALEC tells legislators in Idaho that a proposed tobacco tax increase "is bad public policy and clearly antithetical to the Jeffersonian principles that ALEC strongly supports." In Wisconsin, ALEC told members reviewing a "tort reform" measure that ALEC "supports this legislation which contains numerous provisions that reflect ALEC's civil justice reform policy and model legislation." These are just a few examples among many.
In addition, ALEC's corporate members send registered lobbyists to represent their firm at ALEC meetings. Some of ALEC's corporate members are known to have funded their ALEC membership dues from their lobbying accounts. As a 501(c)(3) "charity," corporations may be taking a tax write-off for their ALEC funding, which means that American taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the corporate lobbying expenditures made through ALEC.
ALEC has been subject to three separate citizen complaints challenging its charitable, tax-exempt status. The late Bob Edgar, formerly the leader of good government group Common Cause, and his wife filed a "whistleblower" complaint with hundreds of pages of supporting documents demonstrating that ALEC has abused its charitable status by engaging in substantial undisclosed lobbying.
Former IRS Exempt Organizations director Marcus Owens filed another complaint on behalf of Clergy VOICE, a group of Christian ministers in Ohio, alleging that ALEC operates primarily for the private benefit of its corporate members rather than for any sort of public welfare. The Voters Legislative Transparency Project has also filed a complaint challenging ALEC's charitable status based on its lobbying and its corporate funded trips for lawmakers (which CMD has documented, even though ALEC repeatedly told the IRS it spent no money on travel for lawmakers).
MYTH: ALEC Is Bipartisan
FACT: ALEC Is Overwhelmingly Republican
Almost all of ALEC's legislative members are Republican, but that was not readily apparent -- based on the rhetoric -- until the launch of ALECexposed in 2011, when CMD reviewed the party affiliation of the 104 legislators in leadership positions within ALEC and found just one Democrat. Speakers at ALEC meetings are almost always Republican, like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Paul Ryan at this year's meeting, and often discuss partisan topics, like Tucker Carlson analyzing the GOP presidential field or FreedomWorks founder Dick Armey promoting the Tea Party.
CMD has also documented how ALEC arranged conference calls between ALEC legislators and the former lawyer for the RNC to plan for redistricting operations in 2011 after the 2010 census.
MYTH: ALEC Is Legislator-Driven
"ALEC is run by and for state legislators."
"Elected state legislators fully control ALEC's model policy process."
-- ALEC website, "Frequently Asked Questions"
FACT: Corporate Interests and Funders Are the Driving Force Behind ALEC
ALEC PR documents provided to CMD in 2011 describe the organization as giving corporations a "voice and a vote" on ALEC bills and boast that each year nearly 1000 ALEC bills are introduced and 20% are made into law.
Reports from concerned lawmakers who've attended ALEC meetings also indicate that corporations are in the drivers seat.
As CMD has documented, legislators, and corporations get an equal vote in task force meetings on whether to adopt bills. Democratic legislator Mark Pocan observed that the legislator moderating one task force meeting "went as far as to say that we are a big football team. The legislators are the football players and the corporate lobbyists and special interest group presenters are 'our' coaches."
ALEC's governing board of legislators and "Private Enterprise" board meet jointly. The board of legislators has a chance to object before a bill becomes official ALEC policy, but it is rare that the board goes against the wishes of ALEC's "private sector" members.
More than 98 percent of ALEC's funding come from sources other than legislative dues, such as corporations, trade associations, and CEO foundations like the Koch family foundations. Legislators pay just $50 per year for membership, whereas corporations pay thousands or tens of thousands, plus additional sponsorship fees.
MYTH: Only Legislators Can Propose ALEC Model Bills
FACT: Special Interests Bills Still Pouring Out of ALEC
ALEC enacted a policy earlier this year declaring that only legislators can propose "model" legislation, but it appears to be little more than a talking point. In practice, it means that a corporation or a "think tank" drafts a bill, then passes it off to a legislator to propose at ALEC under his or her own name. There is no indication that corporations play any less of a role in ALEC than they have for decades.
MYTH: ALEC Should Be Allowed to Erase its History with Stand Your Ground, Voter ID & More
Earlier this year, ALEC wrote a letter to the Center for Media and Democracy suggesting that the organization should no longer be linked to "Stand Your Ground" gun laws, bills that make it harder for Americans to vote through restrictive voter ID, prison privatization or any of the other "social issues" it promoted through its "Public Safety and Elections Task Force," as it disbanded that Task Force in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting.
"[T]he American Legislative Exchange Council maintains no policy on 'stand your ground' and hasn't for quite some time." -- Rep. John Piscopo, ALEC National Chair, press release, Aug. 9, 2013.
FACT: These Laws Are Still on the Books Doing Untold Harm
For years, ALEC and its members such as the NRA, Wal-Mart, private prison firms and the bail bond industry devoted significant resources to the ALEC task force that pushed legislation to privatize prisons and lengthen prison sentences, to make it harder to vote but easier to get away with murder, and to criminalize immigration but put more guns on the streets.
Despite disbanding the Public Safety and Elections Task Force, ALEC has not made any effort to repeal the laws it pushed for decades. Those laws remain on the books in dozens of states, and until the laws are repealed, will forever be part of ALEC's legacy.
Even after the announcement that it suspended this task force the NRA had the biggest booth at ALEC's summer conference in 2012 and continued the annual shooting event for ALEC legislators and corporate lobbyists. ALEC also quietly restarted its crime task force under the new name "Justice Performance Project," which claims to be devoted to addressing prison overcrowding, without taking any responsibility for the decades of laws ALEC pushed that led to this crisis and without publicly acknowledging the ways its corporate benefactors, like the bail bond industry, might benefit through privatizing the monitoring of prisoners paroled or under non-custodial supervision under criminal justice reforms.
MYTH: ALEC Ratified Legislation Had Nothing to Do with the Zimmerman Case or Verdict
After the verdict in the Zimmerman case, ALEC issued a press statement asserting that the "Stand Your Ground" law played no role in the George Zimmerman case.
FACT: "Stand Your Ground" Had Major Impact on Jury Verdict
"Stand Your Ground" was the reason that police initially refused to arrest George Zimmerman, and once he faced trial, the "Stand Your Ground" law was part of the jury instructions, as CMD extensively documented. The one juror to speak publicly acknowledged that Stand Your Ground played a significant role in Zimmerman's acquittal.
Additionally, the Trayvon Martin tragedy was just one example of how Stand Your Ground laws interfere with law enforcement and can allow the guilty to walk free. After ALEC adopted Florida's Stand Your Ground law as a "model" in 2005, it spread to more than two dozen other states and it has helped countless numbers of shooters escape prosecution for taking another person's life by claiming they were "standing their ground," and avoiding the chance that jury might view the evidence differently. The bill that ALEC promoted for years also makes it harder for families to sue the person who killed their loved one by allowing civil immunity to be given and requiring the plaintiffs to pay the killer's attorney's fees and lost wages.
MYTH: Legislators Receive ALEC "Scholarships" for Travel
ALEC has long claimed that the ALEC-organized, corporate-funded "scholarships" that legislators use to fund their travel to ALEC meetings are not "gifts."
FACT: The "Scholarships" Are Really Corporate-Funded Gifts
Corporations foot the bill for much of the legislator travel to ALEC meetings, and it is still a gift that can buy influence, even if ALEC calls it a "scholarship."
Through the ALEC "scholarship" program, corporations and their lobbyists give ALEC money that is used to reimburse legislators from that state for their flights, hotel rooms, and meals for ALEC meetings. Some legislators are informed which corporations paid their way, and even asked to send lobbyists a thank you note.
Most states ban gifts from lobbyists or lobbying principals, and the ALEC "scholarship" program has been deemed impermissible in states like Minnesota and Nebraska.
ALEC has also made contradictory claims to state ethics boards and the IRS about the operations of its "scholarship" program. For example, ALEC told Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board that "[d]ecisions on how scholarships are awarded and in what amounts are made by ALEC staff." But in its 2010 filing with the IRS, ALEC declared that "the State Chair [a legislator] retains the exclusive right to determine the expenditures" from the scholarship fund.