ALEC Invites Politicians to "Plan Your 2016 Agenda" at ALEC Confab in Scottsdale

This year, the American Legislative Exchange Council's winter meeting, which it calls the "States and Nation Policy Summit," will be held in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa from December 2-4.

ALEC has promoted this event as an invitation for legislators to use the meeting to "plan your 2016 agenda."

Controversy over the organization's role as a bill mill for special interest cookie-cutter legislation and as the key group teaching climate change denial to legislators has led 106 mainstream corporations to stop funding it since 2012, including Shell, BP, Northrup Grumman, T-Mobile, Allergan, and the biggest rail network in Canada this year.

In Arizona, ALEC lawmakers will hear from a number of prominent speakers in corporate-sponsored plenary sessions and workshops, then retreat into "task force" meetings to vote as equals on "model bills" with corporate lobbyists and special interest groups.

The meetings where corporations vote on bills alongside legislators continue to be closed to the press and the public, although ALEC touted allowing press to see ALEC alum Scott Walker speak at its summer meeting before he exited the presidential campaign in failure.

ALEC's little brother--its new project dubbed the "American City County Exchange" (ACCE)--will also be meeting at the ALEC meeting and its local municipal officials will be attending many of the same ALEC sessions, in addition to the parties at fancy restaurants in the evenings.

One of the most significant funders of ALEC is Koch Industries, and other Koch-led entities like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners as well as Koch-funded and think tanks, sit on a number of ALEC task forces and have multiple votes within the organization..

Here are some of the items on the top of ALEC's legislative agenda described in more detail below: further efforts to undermine climate action, to help corporations defeat consumers seeking justice in the courts, to facilitate a race to the bottom in occupational standards, to back Israel, and to push more privatization of public schools.

ALEC Features Controversial Figures Dr. Ben Carson and Gov. LePage

ALEC's new National Chair, Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir, is a registered nurse and a far-right ALEC loyalist who has introduced numerous ALEC bills in Wisconsin, including the Right to Work Act, the Health Care Savings Account Act, the Special Needs Scholarship Act and more. She and her staff went to great lengths to avoid lawful open records requests about her communications with ALEC as a legislator. She ultimately settled the Center for Media and Democracy's lawsuit and paid damages.

ALEC leadership must have worked overtime to secure two of most derided speakers in the GOP circuit for the Scottsdale meeting.

From his nonsensical theories about the pyramids of Giza being used for grain storage to his assertions that American Muslims celebrated the 9-11 attacks in New Jersey, Ben Carson has garnered a lot of critical attention as one of the GOP frontrunners.

Since the Paris terrorist attacks, his repeated gaffes have harmed his standing in the polls to the benefit of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz who has moved into second place. Carson is the only GOP presidential candidate who has been granted access to the Koch Brothers' advanced voter data base called i360, as CMD recently uncovered.

Governor Paul LePage's reputation is also taking a pounding. His approval rating in the state of Maine has dropped to 32 percent. In recent weeks, Mainers have been riveted by the Government Oversight Committee's investigation into LePage's threat last summer to withhold $500,000 in already appropriated state funds from a nonprofit charter school operator over its decision to hire House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, as its next president. The organization promptly backed down and fired Eves. Now, some in the capitol are pushing for LePage's impeachment.

As governor, he has been a reliable water carrier for the Koch-ALEC agenda ever since he selected ALEC's private-sector Maine chair, Ann Robinson, to co-chair his transition team in 2010. Unable to get his radical plan to eliminate Maine's income tax passed in the Legislature, LePage threw a tantrum and vowed to veto every bill sponsored by a Democrat--a promise of unprecedented obstruction that he kept, prompting a near-record number of veto overrides.

Now LePage is launching a campaign to get the ALEC-style income tax repeal on the 2016 ballot as a voter initiative. ALEC is backing the bill written by LePage staffer Nick Adolphsen, former director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which is part of the State Policy Network, a sister group founded to help make ALEC's national agenda look local and help ALEC's legislative agenda in the states.

Also speaking at ALEC is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) President, Arthur C. Brooks. AEI is another Koch-funded institution that advances the Koch agenda at the federal level. AEI scholars have claimed that minimum wage hikes are "simply reckless," called Wall Street financial reforms "disastrously wrong," supported making it harder for Americans to vote through ALEC "voter ID" restrictions, and spent countless efforts attempting to spread denial over the science of climate change.

ALEC Energy Task Force Working to Derail U.S. Climate Action

While negotiations are taking place at the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris this week to reach an international climate agreement, ALEC legislators and energy lobbyists will be discussing their plans to undermine President Obama's Clean Power Plan--the climate commitment that the U.S. will be making at the United Nations' meeting.

ALEC's Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force--which has also been funded by Koch money--will lead two workshops on the Clean Power Plan: "Key Changes in the Final Rule and How State Legislatures Can Protect States" and "Avoiding Premature Implementations: MATS, the Clean Power Plan and Utilities." For years, the climate denial group has been organizing conferences--sponsored by energy giants--where it has attempted to defeat any attempt to combat climate change.

That task force will also consider reauthorizing five older legislative items, including two bills that continue to push its anti-environmental agenda:

  • The "State Withdrawal from Regional Climate Initiatives" pulls states out of regional programs to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, which ALEC called "son of Kyoto" programs, and an agenda embraced by some ALEC politicians, like then-Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona (an alum ALEC) who did just that in 2010.
  • The Environmental Priorities Act would establish a "council" made up of industry representatives--such as state chambers of commerce--to consider likely costs to corporations if a state implements new environmental policies; it's basically a way for corporations to veto the public's will and trump the votes of citizens to protect their air, water, and climate from corporate pollution.

The Energy Environment and Agriculture Task Force will also hear a presentation on federal subsidies for electric vehicles, then vote on a resolution for states to adopt that would discourage subsidies: "Resolution Regarding Subsidies for Electric Vehicles." Notably, ALEC has been silent on the $37.5 billion in federal fossil subsidies that go to ALEC funders like Exxon Mobil, which has funded climate change denial through ALEC--as CMD recently documented for the New York Attorney General who is investigating Exxon Mobile's funding of climate denial.

It is unknown what Ford Motor Company, which CMD recently exposed as an ALEC funder and which produces both hybrid and plug-in vehicles, thinks of this bill. Ford has been a member of ALEC's Civil Justice Task Force, which pushes what it calls "tort reform" and others have called "tort deform," changes to personal injury laws.

ALEC Civil Justice Task Force Protecting Corporations from Consumers

ALEC continues to promote corporate-friendly changes to the legal system through its Civil Justice Task Force, which pushes numerous bills that make it harder for consumers to get the full measure of damages a jury would award if they are injured or killed by dangerous products.

In Arizona, ALEC will be proposing a resolution which states, "the civil justice system should be reserved for individuals who have experienced real injuries and actual losses." This is rhetorical code for legislation restricting claims and damages for Americans who have suffered emotional harm like pain and suffering or future increased risk of injury or who may have to undergo medical monitoring after exposure to potentially harmful materials.

One of ALEC's most notorious tort bills would bar Americans from suing if their loved one is killed or injured by an FDA-approved drug unless they could prove fraud, but defective drugs are routinely recalled because the FDA relies heavily on testing and assurances by drug companies. Big drug companies and their trade associations have been big ALEC funders.

At this meeting, ALEC is holding a vote by legislators and corporations on a bill entitled "The Preserving Liability System for Actual Harms Act," which would limit civil litigation options for plaintiffs who have non-pecuniary damages like pain and suffering. ALEC refers to these lawsuits as "no-injury suits" or "Empty Suit Litigation," will be hold a presentation on this issue entitled "Empty Suit Litigation and State Legislative Options."

Empty Suit Litigation™ is a trademark of the American Tort Reform Foundation, an arm of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA). ATRA, through one of its top advocates, Victor Schwartz, has long had a seat and a vote at ALEC task force meetings with legislators, as CMD has documented.

Both ATRA and ALEC have devoted substantial time and resources to defending asbestos manufacturers from being sued by workers, including U.S. veterans, who developed deadly mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. ALEC has been funded by corporations that have produced and used asbestos in their products.

ALEC will also consider how to continue to support forced, mandatory arbitration agreements in contracting with a presentation, "What's New in Arbitration: Considerations for State Legislators." This abusive practice prevents consumers cheated by giant corporations from filing class action suits and was recently highlighted by The New York Times.

ALEC funders Verizon and AT&T have both had to pay massive fines and settlements for cheating or overcharging consumers and their standard form contracts attempt to require consumers to bypass courts and juries of their peers in favor of arbitrators as the corporations would prefer.

In continuing its opposition to plaintiff litigation, ALEC will hold a presentation for legislators called "Consumer Lawsuit Lending: The Ohio Case Study," which is likely to object to "lawsuit lending," a practice which allows consumers to receive third-party funding to finance lawsuits that would otherwise be difficult for an ordinary citizen to pursue against large corporations. Lawsuit lending was legalized in Ohio in 2008.

ALEC is also scheduled to hold a secret vote on a "Statement of Principles on State Workers' Compensation Reform." ALEC's proposed changes to worker's compensation laws would make it harder for workers to get compensation for injury and narrow their medical and legal options. The resolution promotes legislation to limit which treatments, drugs, medical costs, and doctors are legally allowed through worker's compensation programs.

ALEC is pushing legal changes to require workers to overcome a higher burden of proof in worker's compensation cases and to remove any no-fault provisions in worker's compensation laws—meaning workers that lose a compensation claim would be required to pay their employers legal fees.

ALEC Commerce Task Force Celebrates the "Gig" Economy

ALEC's Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force has been the source of a slew of anti-worker bills including attacks on organized labor, attacks on higher wages, and efforts to limit benefits for workers. In Arizona, legislators will get an update on the success of these efforts to crush the only representative of working families in the workplace entitled: "From Right-to-Work to Paycheck Protection, An Update on State Labor Issues."

ALEC is also having workshops on the "Gig Economy" and "What's Next for the 'Sharing Economy'--A Discussion on Principles on Best Practices," which will likely lay the groundwork for further efforts to undermine worker protections.

There is no doubt that the American workforce is changing. America's failed trade policies (enthusiastically backed by ALEC) have resulted in the closure of over 50,000 factories in the United States since NAFTA. Now millions find themselves precariously "self-employed" and a million more are working outside of the traditional full-time employment market as temp labor, contingent labor, or contact labor.

While this "gig" economy (a phrase borrowed from the music world) might sound cool, few workers prefer it. There is no doubt that "the rise of the gig economy comes from employers' drive to lower costs, especially during business downturns. Gig workers experience greater insecurity than workers in traditional jobs and suffer from lack of access to established systems of social insurance," says Dollars and Sense magazine.

Bills in this area have not yet been proposed, but "principles and best practices" already been offered by the "R Street" group, which has recommended delinking of employers from employees. The result in a significant loss of legal protections and benefits for workers.

The ALEC session will also field another anti-labor and anti-consumer bill attacking occupational licensing, a system designed to protect consumers through ensuring access to quality services through having properly trained staff, safeguarding against serious harms , and providing worker guidelines for professional development, training, and promotion in some fields.

ALEC's latest bill, "The Occupational Board Reform Act," puts licensing boards under the thumb of state Attorneys General, as the states' top prosecutors are increasingly beholden to corporations to win their electoral campaigns. Under this legislation, the state's top law enforcement officer is required to create a new "Office of Supervision of Occupational Boards" and review every new rule coming out of these boards, while another party is required to review whether the legislature is using the "least restrictive" option in creating new licensing rules.

This might seem like a lot of regulatory bureaucracy for ALEC, with its claimed hostility to regulation in other areas, but it appears designed to make it harder to protect consumers from unlicensed practitioners of various trades.

ALEC already has another bill attacking occupational licensing, the "Occupational Licensing and Job Creation Act." Both bills ensure the race to the bottom in consumer standards by promoting the "least restrictive regulations," something to think about next time one is awaiting a procedure a medical facility.

Ironically, the ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force will be considering a new bill to license a new category of dental assistants, but the bill could have the effect of letting people who do not have the in-depth training as a Doctor of Dental Surgery to perform procedures that currently only licensed dentists can perform.

ALEC Education Task Force Advances More of the Cash-for-Kids Agenda

ALEC's Education Task force persists in pushing a legislative agenda focused on funding private education institutions, including religious-based private education organizations, and using education laws to give tax credits to lessen the taxes paid by corporations.

In Arizona, ALEC will be presenting the Digital Teaching and Learning Act, based on legislation that has already passed in Utah. This bill prescribes a $75,000,000 funding scheme for technology in schools that would siphon funds for public schools and mandate those funds be used for technology in both public and private charter schools. In Utah, educators were concerned about how this legislation cut into an already tight public education budget.

ALEC is also proposing an amendment to its bill entitled "The Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act." This legislation was originally adopted by ALEC in 2004 and modified in 2009. The update to this legislation--a bill that directly takes money from public education funds and makes it available to private charter schools--changes the definition of eligible students by using an income qualifier and creates different responsibilities for schools based on if they receive more or less than $250,000 from this legislation annually.

ALEC will also be hosting two presentations, one called "God and Man Disinvited at Yale," a presentation based on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s. God and Man at Yale in which the conservative activist criticized Yale for embracing non-religious ethics or secularism, and another called "The Future of Blaine Amendments," which refers to constitutional provisions that exist in 38 states that prevent direct government aid to religious educational organizations.

Those provisions are grounded in U.S. law and tradition including the words of Thomas Jefferson, whom ALEC has claimed as its guiding star issuing expensive bronze busts to legislators who advance ALEC's legislative agenda.

ALEC will also be promoting other legislation that provides tax benefits for its corporate funders. These include an amendment to ALEC's "Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act," which was originally adopted by ALEC in 2004. The update to this legislation allows corporate entites and individuals to obtain a tax credit for up to 100 percent of their tax liability, up from 50 percent in the previous version of this legislation.

This means states would receive less money from taxes which usually translates into less money in the budget for public schools.

Another bill, the "Growing Our Workforce Investment Now Act (Go Win)," would provide an income tax credit to employers for each of their employees enrolled in an apprenticeship program. This legislation does not place any requirements on employers to get such an off-set in the taxes they would otherwise owe to fund services provided to state residents.

International and Federal Relations Task Force Targets Wildfires, Backs Israel

In ALEC's International Relations and Federalism Task Force two measures take aim at the federal "mismanagement" of Western lands that do not, in the opinion of the authors, allow for sufficient exploitation of energy and mineral reserves on federally-owned public lands.

As CMD helped document, for decades ALEC has pushed legislation to transfer public lands and national forests to state control. Doing so would make it easier for states to sell off lands or access to public lands for oil, gas, and coal extraction, which would benefit ALEC members like Peabody Energy, Duke Energy, American Electric Power, and others.

Koch-backed groups like ALEC, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), David Koch's Americans for Prosperity and its predecessor David Koch's Citizens for a Sound Economy, and more have all pushed bills to limit federal control of America's public parklands.

Now, ALEC is promoting a new bill that would allow local officials who claim they are unhappy with federal land management and forestry policies to declare a "Catastrophic Wildfire and Public Nuisance" and demand that the appropriate federal or state government address it within 30 days.

That bill is missing some important context.

There has been an escalation in the severity and length of the wildfire season in the Western United States and diminished water resources, which have been linked to climate change. If local governments truly want the federal government to "mitigate" these problems they should be backing federal efforts to address the climate crisis, instead ALEC has long been a leading climate change denier providing an array of discredited claims to state legislators.

ALEC's International Relations Committee is also slated to consider two resolutions in support of Israel, both were included in the packet for legislators in "shell," or very brief form. The first labels "BDS Movements" (Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions movements) as "politically motivated" with an ultimate objective of "the destruction of the state of Israel."

The second discourages secondary boycott activities against persons doing business with or in countries that are friendly to the United States, such as, one assumes, Israel. Thousands of mainstream groups, universities, and other institutions, including recently the American Anthropological Association, have backed measures to boycott Israel in response to its treatment of Palestinians.

ALEC has long opposed to socially responsible investing and even spent tremendous energy on anti-anti-Apartheid measures aimed at stopping divesting from South Africa as People for the American Way and CMD has documented in "Shilling for Profit."

ALEC's Little Brother ACCE

ALEC's American City and County Exchange (ACCE) will have a few workshops just for ACCE participants, including "Trending regulations in local government hurting economic growth," "Restructuring federal and state grants to local governments by reducing bureaucracy," and "Federalism, Dillon Rule & Home Rule promote limited government." ACCE is led by Jon Russell, a local politician called extremely divisive by some Republicans.

Also on the ACCE agenda are federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules that are intended to tackle the thorny and persistent problem of racial segregation in housing, an important but often neglected part of the American civil rights guarantees. Will ACCE's angle be that anti-discrimination rules are a federal over-reach, despite the broad mandate of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee all Americans equal protection of the law?

ACCE purports to be concerned about such threats to "local control," but CMD has documented many instances of ALEC encouraging state intervention and preemption of local democracy initiatives, such as ALEC bills to block minimum wage raises at the local level.

Corporate Defections from ALEC Continue to Mount

Since CMD first launched its ALECexposed investigation in 2011, documenting the extensive agenda of the corporate lobbying group, 106 corporations and 19 nonprofits have left ALEC, including some of the largest corporations in the world such as General Motors, BP, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Walmart, McDonalds, Google, Shell and more.

Despite these defections, prominent ALEC loyalists include Koch Industries, Exxon, Reynolds Tobacco, Altria, and big PhRMA, including Pfizer continue to underwrite ALEC and its agenda to change U.S. laws. See the full list here.

CMD's Executive Director Lisa Graves, Zachary Peters, Jamie Corey, and Arn Person contributed to this article.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.