By Lisa Graves and Brendan Fischer (initially published by TruthOut.org).
"Model" bills voted on by corporations through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) touch almost every aspect of American life. The Center for Media and Democracy has analyzed and made available over 800 ALEC model bills to allow other reporters and the public to track corporate influence in state legislatures across the country (and in Congress) at ALECExposed.org. Here is a quick summary of six of the many "hot" topics on the ALEC corporate-politician agenda this year.
Disenfranchising American Citizens Through Voter ID
In the wake of the highest general election turnout in nearly 60 years in the 2008 presidential election (particularly among university students and African-Americans), ALEC's "voter ID" legislation has been rapidly moving in state legislatures. Shortly after the election of the nation's first black president, "Preventing Election Fraud" was the cover story on the Inside ALEC magazine, and ALEC corporations and politicians voted for "model" voter legislation in 2009. Voter ID is a hot issue this year, in advance of the 2012 presidential election.
In many of these states, voter ID legislation has ALEC's fingerprints. In forty-seven states, legislation was introduced requiring specific kinds of identification to vote or making existing requirements more onerous. These laws have the effect of disenfranchising many of the elderly, people with disabilities, people of color, and students, among others who do not have driver's licenses, but who typically have other proof where they live in a voting precinct, like a utility bill, which has traditionally been accepted for voter registration. In Wisconsin, for example, those without the designated state-issued photo ID include many tens of thousands of state university students and a staggering number of other people, especially older Americans and also people of color -- 23 percent of all elderly Wisconsinites over the age of 65; 17 percent of white men and women; 55 percent of all African American males and 49 percent of African American women; 46 percent of Hispanic men and 59% of Hispanic women; 78 percent of African American men age 18-24 and 66 percent of African American women age 18-24. Although Wisconsin's voter ID law offers free IDs, just like the ALEC bill, Governor Scott Walker subsequently announced plans to close as many as ten offices where people could obtain IDs, allegedly located in Democratic districts.
Out of the forty-seven states where Voter ID bills have been introduced, twenty states had no voter ID requirement at the beginning of 2011 but legislation to require it was introduced this year; it became law in three. Of the remainder, twenty-seven had voter ID, but not photo ID, requirements at the beginning of 2011; fourteen of these states saw legislation that would require photo ID at the polls, and the proposals became law in four states. This disproportionate focus on the specter of voter fraud belies the statistical reality that such fraud in the U.S. is exceedingly rare, even though such legislation will have a statistically significant effect of depriving many American citizens of their right to vote. The idea of limiting the number of people who vote is closely associated with ALEC's founder, Paul Weyrich. Among the many of Weyrich's statements over the years that were tailored to advance the agenda of white fundamentalists, in 1980 he gave a particularly illuminating and disturbing speech on voting. He expressly told a group of religious conservatives: "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
In early 2011, a wave of anti-union provisions provoked unprecedented protests, after Wisconsin Governor and ALEC alumni Scott Walker introduced a radical set of anti-worker provisions to cripple public employee unions. After a month of massive protests, William Cronon, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin penned an op-ed in the New York Times questioning whether ALEC was behind Governor Walker's union-busting effort. Two days later, the state Republican Party filed an Open Records request against him widely perceived to be retaliation against questioning the role of ALEC. Wisconsin's new Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature were not alone in pushing anti-union legislation in 2011 -- Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire, Florida and 19 other states introduced laws limiting the collective bargaining rights of employees -- and the simultaneous effort seemed more than coincidence. Indeed, ALEC has long had its sights set on busting unions, which strengthen the bargaining power of employees in negotiations with public and corporate employers, and which serve as a political counterweight to corporate influence in elections and policymaking.
Each state pushed its own ALEC-inspired anti-union legislation, but there were many commonalities. Some of the most common ALEC bills reflected in these efforts were the "Public Employer Payroll Deduction Act" prohibiting automatic payroll deductions for union dues, the "Public Employee Freedom Act" allowing employees to be free riders and opt-out of paying union dues, and various iterations of ALEC's "Right to Work" and "Paycheck Protection" legislation. ALEC ideological guru Milton Friedman, who spoke at several ALEC meetings since 1978, famously said "Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces real changes. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around." Anti-union legislation is just such an idea that has been "lying around" awaiting the budget crisis, which was caused by unregulated Wall Street gambling and which is being irrationally blamed on union pay and pensions.
Undoing Efforts to Address Climate Change
After federal climate change legislation failed in 2010, over 30 states joined regional climate agreements in the Midwest, Northeast, and West to coordinate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, develop clean energy sources, and bring predictability to state rules and regulations. By most measures, this state-led, decentralized, cooperative effort proves the vitality of federalism, a concept ALEC allegedly supports. However, these regional initiatives might also affect the profits of ALEC funders like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil, and ALEC drafted the "State Withdrawal from Regional Climate Initiatives" (pdf) to thwart these state-led efforts. The ALEC resolution includes talking points urging state governors to withdraw from regional climate initiatives, and has shown up in states like Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, in some cases with the ALEC language duplicated verbatim.
Filling For-Profit Prisons Through Anti-Immigrant Bills
Arizona's infamous anti-immigrant legislation, known as SB1070, has been revealed by National Public Radio to have been crafted by long-time ALEC member Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) and others connected to ALEC. The for-profit prison company, CCA, reportedly helped draft the ALEC "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act," which requires state law enforcement enforce federal immigration law, gives private citizens the right to sue law enforcement officers if they do not think the law is being enforced (regardless of other law enforcement priorities such as investigating violent crimes), makes presence on state soil without federal immigration status a criminal offense, and requires that employers use the flawed "e-Verify" system for hiring employees. This model bill became Arizona's SB1070, resulting in legalized racial profiling and more immigrants incarcerated in for-profit prisons operated by CCA. According to the ACLU, "ten percent of the country's detained immigrants are held in five detention centers in Arizona[,] three of them are run by the private Corrections Corporation of America [and there has been] a 58% increase in immigration detention in Arizona over the past six years." Since the beginning of 2010, thirty states introduced anti-immigrant legislation similar to ALEC bills, which also include the "Resolution to Enforce Our Immigration Laws and Secure our Borders" and "Immigration Law Enforcement Act." Five states have passed them: Arizona, Alabama, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.
Opposing Health Insurance Reform
In 2008, in the midst of a presidential election that included campaign promises to address rising health care costs and help the millions of Americans without health insurance, ALEC worked to thwart efforts to provide a program like Medicare for all Americans. In 2008, the ALEC "Health and Human Services Task Force," which has included lobbyists from some of the biggest health insurance and drug companies in the world, voted for a model state constitutional amendment or statute to make a national health insurance program basically illegal, through a bill with the feel-good name of the "Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act" (pdf). According to ALEC, by 2010, "42 states either introduced or announced ALEC's Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act. Eight states (Virginia, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee) passed the ALEC model as a statute, and two states (Arizona and Oklahoma) passed the ALEC model as a constitutional amendment." The industry-dominated task force went on to pass a resolution that, if passed by 2/3 of the states, could effectively block any national "public option" for health care coverage, under ALEC's claim of a Tenth Amendment "state's right" against such legislation, under its "Resolution on Preserving States Rights Regarding Federal Health Insurance Exchanges and a Public Plan." Seven states have passed resolutions opposing health care reform. ALEC has also boasted that its "Health Care Choice Act" was introduced in nineteen states and became law in Wyoming, allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines, which undermines the ability of a state's regulators to insist on minimum coverage to protect consumers.
Privatizing K-12 Education
ALEC has been pushing to privatize pubic schools through "vouchers," which use tax dollars, for decades, and, like many ALEC initiatives, Wisconsin has been a focal point for its agenda. The nation's first large-scale school voucher program was pushed through in 1990 in Milwaukee by then-Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, an ALEC member. That program was limited to low-income students in Milwaukee and at the time gained bipartisan support, particularly from African-American leaders who supported more educational options for urban youth. It is now clear the Milwaukee program was the proverbial camel's nose under the tent in the ALEC effort to privatize public schools and also to undermine teachers' unions. Despite two decades of lackluster performance in Milwaukee's program, Governor Scott Walker, an ALEC alumni, took office in 2011 and pressed to expand the program statewide, along with provisions to use tax dollars to pay for the private school tuition of wealthy families. Walker was not alone in pushing ALEC's agenda to shift tax dollars from public schools to for-profit school companies or private religious schools.
ALEC model bills representing various privatization footholds have been introduced and passed in many states, particularly through offering tax credits to parents sending their kids to private schools (like the Parental Choice Scholarship Act, the Family Education Tax Credit Program, and the Great School Tax Credit Program). Also popular this year is ALEC's Special Needs Scholarship Act, which attempts to appeal to parents of children with disabilities by providing tax dollars for kids to attend unregulated private schools that can evade the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Act or other regulations.