Under a Shroud of Secrecy and Security, ALEC Conference Gets Underway

By Rep. Chris Taylor (D-WI)

My 5th ALEC conference started like the others—under a shroud of secrecy and security.

The night before, I attempted to register at the host hotel, only to be told by hotel staff that they were under strict orders not to give out any information about ALEC to anyone who wasn’t staying at the hotel (I wasn’t). Though ALEC is known for trying to slide under the radar, this level of secrecy exceeded previous efforts. As I left, I noticed a police car outside.

And before I ducked out of the conference the next day, a security officer guarding the back door of the hotel warned me to take off my ALEC name tag, which must be worn at all times during the conference.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, it is the most formidable right-wing policy machine in the United States.

ALEC is a three-legged stool consisting of state legislators, corporations and right wing think tanks that come together to push pro-corporation policies to maximize corporate profits, drive down workers’ wages and privatize everything.

The two big lightning rod topics at ALEC continue to be education and energy issues, with the two biggest ALEC enemies being public schools and the EPA.

When ALEC’s corporate members and conference sponsors include American Electric Power and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, you can bet that any efforts to reduce coal consumption would get serious push back.

And indeed, the proposed EPA carbon emission rules, designed to curb carbon pollution from coal fired power plants, have sent ALEC pro-coal members into a tizzy as they scramble to figure out how many “grannies will lose their heat” (which they haven’t been able to figure out). The issue has also spun them into rare quandary about political and legal strategies, with many differing opinions on state responses.

But one thing they agree on is that the EPA actions are tantamount to “extortion and blackmail” on states. There was a particularly strong call to arms for legislators to get their Attorney Generals to join a lawsuit against the rules.

Like the ALEC petri dish Wisconsin has become, the majority Republican Wisconsin legislature even one-upped them and gave Attorney General Brad Schimel new positions which Schimel plans to allocate to the cause. One model ALEC bill that is the topic of discussion in the next few days is allowing states to create an “Environmental Impact Litigation fund” which could take corporate donations to fight federal environmental legislation and regulations.

As if not to be undone, public education provokes as strong of ALEC ire as the EPA.

Their strategy on privatizing public education continues to evolve, and is now more focused on co-opting middle-income families by convincing them that public schools are failing their children.

Charter schools seem to be the current craze, perhaps because their private school voucher scheme, directed at low-income children, failed to increase academic performance as they promised. ALEC thinks they have their answer in the independent charter school scheme, which creates another school system that is publicly funded but unaccountable to any elected body and has no regulation or public oversight.

We saw a mini charter school scheme in the latest Wisconsin budget, where the UW Regents and the Waukesha County Executive were given the power to authorize entities allow private charter schools to operate that received public monies.

And ALEC is working on a bigger, more comprehensive model bill on the issue but two corporate ALEC members, virtual school king K12 (another conference sponsor) and the National Alliance for Public Charter schools (the representative who remarked about how active his group has been in Wisconsin) were having a rare public disagreement on the details.

They were told to go off and work on it before the upcoming Education Task Force meeting.

Despite all of the rhetoric about the liberals threatening ALEC’s very existence, during lunch they touted their influence in state legislatures, the halls of Congress with 86 sitting members of Congress and 13 Senators former ALEC members, and even in the current Republican presidential primary, where four candidates, including Scott Walker, are former ALEC members.

Since the tea party wave in 2010, the liberals hadn’t slowed them down, as evidenced by not just the cookie cutter ALEC laws passing state legislatures across the country, but by the proliferation of ALEC policy makers at the highest levels of government.

Now that is truly something to be afraid of.

State Representative Chris Taylor, a Democrat, represents the 76th District in the Wisconsin State Assembly. This is the first of multiple reports from ALEC's San Diego meeting. Click here for the second installment: "Scott Walker Is the Belle of the ALEC Ball."