ALEC Stands its Ground, but Stumbles

Texas Senator Ted Cruz"I'm proud to stand with ALEC today," declared Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Thursday, as he addressed the American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington DC.

"I first came to ALEC over a decade ago. When I was serving in the Bush administration, I'd been privileged to work with ALEC in the federal government," Cruz said. "I've been privileged to work with ALEC when I was back in Texas with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, leading the 10th Amendment Center."

As Cruz addressed the conference, around 200 activists marched outside, waving signs reading "A Legislator for Every Corporation" and chanting "you can hear us loud and clear -- we want ALEC out of here!"

Cruz (who became notorious for his effort to shutdown the government) was at ALEC to give its corporate lobbyists and state legislator members a pep talk. It was a rough week for the organization that has become known as a "corporate bill mill."

This week, The Guardian published ALEC documents demonstrating that the group has recently lost around 60 corporate members, largely as a result of its role in facilitating corporate influence over state legislators, and for pushing voter ID restrictions, climate change denial, and an array of other controversial, corporate-friendly bills. The documents show that ALEC misled its members about the strength of the organization, and misled the press about its plans for forming a 501(c)(4), and suffered a $1.4 million budget shortfall in the first half of 2013, largely as a result of losing corporate funders.

The corporate exodus began after revelations about ALEC's role in pushing "Stand Your Ground" legislation modeled after the law that helped George Zimmerman walk free after killing Trayvon Martin.

"My advice to ALEC is very, very simple," Sen. Cruz said, reflecting on public backlash against the organization. "Stand your ground."

"Sen. Cruz also recently insisted to the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Russell Davis that Stand Your Ground is good for Black people," said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorOfChange. "The Senator's doubling down on his ignorant and tone-deaf defense of these deadly laws -- and ALEC's responsibility for spreading them nationwide -- shows how disconnected ALEC's champions have become from reality."

"We Became More Transparent." Really?

Activists protest the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Washington, DC, 12-5-2013ALEC does appear to be "standing their ground."

Rather than addressing many of the issues that have made ALEC so controversial, it has instead focused more aggressively on public relations. Last year, the group hired global PR firm Edelman, which made its mark representing the tobacco industry, and now represents oil and pharmaceutical interests. ALEC paid Edelman nearly $500,000 last year, according to tax filings. ALEC disbanded the Public Safety and Elections Task Force responsible for the spread of Stand Your Ground and voter ID, but has done nothing to promote the repeal of those laws.

ALEC has also hired a former Edelman executive, Bill Meierling, as their in-house Director of Public Affairs, and paid $118,000 to "public affairs" consultants during the first six months of 2013, according to a budget published by The Guardian.

Oddly, as ALEC tried to weather the storm this week, the notoriously secretive organization tried to change the discussion by touting its "transparency."

"We became more transparent" in 2013, reads the first page of the meeting agenda. ALEC is "focused on transparency," ALEC said in a statement released this week.

ALEC is "moving towards transparency," said its spokesperson Meierling, as he refused press credentials to Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll.

ALEC's Meierling also touted the organization's "transparency" as it barred Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank from attending the task force meetings where corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on model bills. "Our business meetings are not open, and so the subcommittee meetings and task force meetings are not open," Meierling told Milbank.

"What you fundamentally need to know about this organization is it's completely legislator driven," Meierling told him.

"Uh-huh," Milbank wrote. "And ALEC is proving that by keeping reporters from the rooms where the legislators are or are not receiving their marching orders from corporate patrons."

The Guardian also revealed new angles to ALEC's effort to evade state transparency laws.

Legislators who serve as ALEC State Chairs would be required to "inform ALEC of any public records/FOIA requests that include ALEC documents," according to a draft agreement.

As CMD has previously reported, this fits into a larger pattern of ALEC trying to keep its communications with lawmakers secret.

Despite ALEC's claims that "we became more transparent" in 2013, 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 law. ALEC has also been sending communications to legislators via an online dropbox, which it admitted in June was an effort to try to evade disclosure under open records laws. In Texas, ALEC even went so far as to formally ask 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. Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, rejected this claim in September.

ALEC Supports Local Control?

Another odd piece of spin from ALEC was its stated commitment to local control. "People are better served by local leaders," said American Legislative Exchange Council National Chair Linda Upmeyer, a State Representative from Iowa, at Wednesday's luncheon.

ALEC's record sure doesn't suggest much faith in local democracy -- at least when local governments threaten the profits of ALEC's corporate backers. For example:

  • The ALEC "Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act" would thwart local control by prohibiting city and county governments from establishing municipal broadband; the bill, which is a boon for ALEC members like AT&T, has become law in nineteen states.
  • At ALEC's August 2011 meeting, legislators were handed a Wisconsin bill to preempt local efforts to guarantee paid sick days for workers; after that, paid sick days preemption bills have spread across the country and been introduced in twelve other states, in most cases sponsored by an ALEC legislator, and with the backing of ALEC members like the National Restaurant Association.
  • The ALEC "Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act" would prohibit local governments from enacting a minimum wage ordinance that exceeds the statewide minimum; a discussion on minimum wage was also on the agenda for this year's meeting, as workers across the country walk out of fast food jobs to advocate for a minimum wage increase.
  • The "State Pesticide Preemption Act" would bar local leaders from protecting the health of their communities by limiting the types of pesticides that can be used within city or county limits, and the "Biotechnology State Uniformity Resolution" calls for preemption of local GMO bans, both of which protect the profits of the corporations represented by ALEC member CropLife America.
  • ALEC also has adopted legislation to preempt local leaders from enacting labor peace agreements and rent controls.
  • In one of the last acts of the now-disbanded Public Safety and Elections Task Force, ALEC even adopted a bill to prohibit local governments from banning machine guns or other firearms in their communities.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are some indications that ALEC's claimed dedication to "local control" may actually have nothing to do with support for local democracy.

In a workshop at the ALEC meeting, Michael Farris, a Senior Fellow at the group Citizens for Self-Governance, advised ALEC members on messaging, and warned against the use of terms like "states rights."

"It's not about states rights, it's about local control," he said.

States rights is associated with slavery, Farris said, but by using terms like "local control," "you just steer the language in the proper direction."