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How ALEC Serves As A ‘Dating Service’ For Politicians And Corporations

Ed Pilkington is chief correspondent for

Audio

Aired 12/10/13

A batch of internal documents recently leaked to The Guardian has revealed new insights into the goals and finances of the secretive group called ALEC. The American Legislative Exchange Council is a group that brings together state legislators and representatives of corporations. Together, they develop model bills that lawmakers introduce and try to pass in their state legislatures. Through these model bills, ALEC has worked to privatize public education, cut taxes, reduce public employee compensation, oppose Obamacare and resist state regulations to reduce global warming gas emissions.

"ALEC is like an incubator of predominantly conservative legislation," Guardian correspondent Ed Pilkington tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "The vast majority of the model bills are conservative in their inception and those bills then spread right across America."

Pilkington broke the story of these documents last week in his article "ALEC facing funding crisis from donor exodus in wake of Trayvon Martin row." He's the chief correspondent for The Guardian US, which is the American website edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.

Interview Highlights

On the way ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) is like a "dating service"

ALEC is sort of almost a dating service between politicians at the state level, local elected politicians, and many of America's biggest companies. It brings them together much as a dating service would do. It sits them in rooms behind closed doors where three times a year they come together to think about what should be the next wave of state-based legislation and they have presentations from the companies that say what they would like to see done legislatively in states right across America. Then they have a vote and the legislators begin. Hundreds of state legislators across America belong to ALEC and come to these meetings.

They begin to have a vote on what they'd like to do in the next state assembly session. And after the legislators have voted the companies get to vote and essentially they have a veto. If they don't vote by at least 50 percent to approve a piece of legislation going forward, it doesn't happen. If they think they do approve of it, it goes ahead and becomes a model bill, which is like a blueprint for a piece of legislation that ALEC wants to see spread across America.

On giving corporations a voice

I don't think anyone in America would have any trouble with the idea of corporations making clear what they wanted done by politicians -- that's a very important part of the democratic process -- bearing in mind that the corporations we're talking about are among the largest employers in the country. It's important that they should be able to transmit and communicate their views into the political process. What's special about ALEC, and I think what some people have difficulty with ... is that they give corporations actually a vote, and I mean that literally. ... The corporations will have an equal vote to elected politicians at state level and they have this veto which goes beyond airing what corporations would like to see done by state assemblies and actually give them a direct plug into the system.

On corporations' voting power

Essentially [corporations are] getting an equal vote, because it's a sort of veto unless both sides approve by the majority that something should be turned into a model bill, it will not go ahead. If you look at the membership figures it's something like 1,800 on the public side, 1,800 state legislators belong to ALEC, and on the other side there's something like 220 or so corporations belong to ALEC, so it's a great inflation of their influence that they get an equal vote.

On ALEC's most controversial legislation

The most controversial has been the Stand Your Ground Law. ... It's very pertinent to the documents that The Guardian obtained last week. In 2005 Florida introduced the country's very first Stand Your Ground Law which gave homeowners the right to self-defense beyond the actual home. What ALEC did, it saw that bill, it liked that bill, in discussions between state legislators and corporations in their thrice annual meetings, they liked it too, and they adopted it into a model bill. And it was ALEC that helped spread Stand Your Ground across the country. There are now something like 26 states who have it on their books. ... When [African-American high school student] Trayvon Martin was killed in February 2012 by [neighborhood watch coordinator] George Zimmerman who was later acquitted for second degree murder, ALEC became embroiled in that controversy and that has had a real impact on ALEC going forward in terms of its reputation dealing with big corporations.

On ALEC's agenda

[In] any area of really front line, controversial, ideologically conservative legislation that you see spreading in states across America, you're likely to find ALEC somewhere behind it. I'm talking about the fight against Obamacare at state level, the attempt to keep back Medicaid, attempts to reduce the pension entitlements of public employees and to keep low the minimum wage. And in education, the spread of voucher systems which are used to forward home education and private education, and to some degree, undermine public schools.

On the information about ALEC leaked in The Guardian

They talked about their actual agenda, they talked about their budget, which showed the degree of which they're in financial difficulty post the Trayvon Martin controversy. One of the things that leapt out at me was a page which was titled "Prodigal Son Project," and beneath it was a list of 41 companies -- and I mean, major companies, the biggest in the country and most iconic, there's Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds, Walmart, Amazon, General Electric -- and those are all companies that quit as members of ALEC in the two or three months after Trayvon Martin died. And by dint of that name, Prodigal Son Project, it suggests that ALEC is very keen to get them back -- and you sort of can start to understand why when you see the funding structure of the network. The vast majority is something like 98 percent of its funding comes from the corporation side as well as major foundations, conservative think-tanks and funding bodies. So although they get an equal vote, the corporations, alongside the politicians, they pay the lion's share of the money.

On ALEC's lobbying

ALEC has always stood behind the defense that it is a private members club a bit like a golf club and that therefore it shouldn't be subject to the same public scrutiny as other institutions in public life. That's also significant in the other big thing we discovered in our documents which is the whole issue of lobbying. ALEC says it does zero lobbying and it says that literally because with the IRS, with the tax man in America, it has to disclose how much lobbying it does because that affects its charitable status.

... What we learned in our documents is that ALEC is now planning to set up a side organization called "The Jeffersonian Project," which would have slightly different charity status. ... It would allow ALEC, going forward, to do more overt lobbying. I think that opens a window into a huge area of public life in America that has not been given much discussion, thought or critical thinking, and that is the area of lobbying beyond the actual election process.

Most of the focus in America at the moment is on big money going into actual election campaigns ... but what people then don't think about is the lobbying that happens at the next stage which is arguably actually more important, and that is what do those elected politicians do when given power by the voters to go to the state legislature, put bills in front of their colleagues, vote on them, and actually change the lives of individuals through these laws. ... And yet people aren't really talking about the lobbying that happens at that stage.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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