In some circles, the mention of Alec brings to mind a left-leaning Baldwin brother. But in political circles, and increasingly in North Carolina, talk of ALEC provokes complaints about a right-leaning Big Brother.
The latter ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council. Its mission, according to its websites, is “to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators.”
Progressive advocacy groups and organizations that track the influence of corporate money on legislations see ALEC as pursuing a far different mission. They say ALEC engages in illegal lobbying that enriches big business and endangers ordinary citizens.
“It is a worrisome marriage of corporations and politicians, which seems to normalize a kind of corruption of the legislative processof the democratic process,” wrote Lisa Graves, executive director of Center for Media and Democracy, in a letter introducing a website, ALEC Exposed.
How much legislation in North Carolina was prompted by ALEC during the last session is a mater of dispute, even among progressives. But there’s no doubt that ALEC’s influence rose markedly in 2011 as Republicans surged into the majority in state legislatures around the country.
In North Carolina, Republicans took control of the General Assembly this year for the first time in more than a century and ALEC was happy with the results. In fact, House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenberg, the man who directs the progress of House bills, was named an ALEC Legislator of the Year.
“I was honored,” Tillis said in a statement. “It is a reflection of the tireless efforts of the House members and the historic nature of their accomplishments during this session.”
ALEC was founded in 1973 by the conservative strategist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich. It includes more than 300 corporations, conservative think tanks and 2,000 like-minded state legislators.
Corporate members include major tobacco companies such as Altria and Reynolds American; pharmaceutical companies Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline; and energy companies ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy; and the Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, the lobbying arm of Koch Industries. David and Charles Koch, who own Koch Industries, are major funders of conservative advocacy groups
The legislators are described by ALEC as “members,” but their $50 annual membership fees account for only $100,000 of an ALEC budget that exceeds $6 million. The rest comes largely from foundations and major business interests.
The legislators and corporate representatives gather for conferences with the legislators’ expenses often covered by ALEC “scholarships.” Out of these confabs come hundreds of model bills that legislators are encouraged to take home and drop in part, or whole, into the sausage maker that is the legislative process.
North Carolina lawmakers who attended ALEC’s annual conference this year have not requested reimbursement from the General Assembly.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan group that advocates for voters’ rights, says ALEC’s conferences and model legislation slip a national business agenda between legislators and the people who elected them.
“It’s not listening to their constituencies. It’s listening to this very narrow segment and it’s all done typically in a very private way,” he says.
Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan, the North Carolina state chairman for ALEC, sees the group’s conferences as a way for public servants to “to hear what business has to say.” But he says the private sector doesn’t dictate bills to legislators. Any model legislation that’s introduced, he says, is vetted though public hearings and filtered by the legislators’ desire to do what is best for their districts.
“I don’t think it’s a deep, dark secret thing,” Steen says. “If it was that bad, I wouldn’t want to be a member.”
However, in this year’s regular legislative session, at least one piece of a proposed bill contained “word-for-word model legislation” from ALEC, says Todd Barlow, political affairs counsel for the North Carolina Advocates For Justice, an association dedicated to protecting people’s rights through legal education.
Barlow cites a provision blocked in the last session that would have given pharmaceutical companies immunity from liability for the adverse effects of any drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration. The proposed immunity would be given despite the fact that some drug hazards do not surface until a drug is FDA approved and used by millions of people.
“That provision got taken away, but it was word-for-word from the model legislation,” Barlow says. He adds that ALEC members have pushed hard for tort reforms that reduce corporate liability for dangerous products.
Such provisions, often far-reaching but buried in the legislative language, represent the threat of legislators taking model bills from a group largely supported by corporations, Barlow says.
“I don’t think a legislator who favors tort reform would come up with immunity for pharmaceutical companies on their own,” he says.
The change, of course, reflects Republicans taking control of the General Assembly this year for the first time in more than a century.
Likewise, many North Carolina legislators are fans of ALEC. The News & Observer reported in August that more than 30 conservative members of the General Assembly traveled to ALEC’s annual convention in New Orleans, an unusually strong turnout.
John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation of Raleigh, suggests the meetings are as innocent as a gathering of the high school civics club.
“It’s a group of people publishing reports and getting together for nerdy conversations,” Hood says.
The details of ALEC’s model bills are generally unavailable to non-members, but a view of the range and depth of the suggested legislation became available last July. The Center for Media and Democracy in Wisconsin obtained more than 800 ALEC model bills and resolutions and posted them at ALECexposed.org.
The nine ALEC task forces consisting of legislators and corporate representatives who draw up the model bills cover a lot of ground, said CMD’s Graves. In an letter introducing the website, she wrote:
“These task forces target legal rules that reach into almost every area of American life: worker and consumer rights, education, the rights of Americans injured or killed by corporations, taxes, health care, immigration, and the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
Where ALEC’s influence begins and ends in North Carolina is hard to measure. The Republican surge in the 2010 midterm elections swept in many new legislators with ideasparticularly on social issuesthat may well be to the right of, or at least well beyond, corporate agendas.
ALEC members, for instance, likely would have preferred that Republican leaders not push through a bill putting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the May 2012 ballot. Civil rights discord, after all, is bad for business.
Dan Crawford, a lobbyist for the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, battled throughout the session against conservatives who moved to roll back environmental regulations and cut funding to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Crawford says there is “a clear link” between ALEC and the anti-environmental regulation movement nationally. But on specific bills he couldn’t tell if the driving force was ALEC or a legislator’s personal antagonism toward environmental regulations.
“We were so busy getting our ass handed to us we didn’t have time to look up and say, ‘Hey, this is ALEC,’” Crawford says.
Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph, is the godfather of ALEC in North Carolina. He has been a member since 1985, has served on its board since the early 1990s and was national chairman in 1994.
Brubaker says ALEC often provides the research to support ideas that conservatives are already committed to making into law.
“We’re in sync with most of the things ALEC wants anyway,” Brubaker says, “but they provide good background.”
Brubaker blames Democrats for ALEC’s growing role. He says Democratic legislative leaders in past sessions limited the opportunities for Republicans to participate in the yearly bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “So some of us migrated to ALEC,” he says.
ALEC’s critics say the group is flouting state and national laws in the way it extends its influence.
As a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, ALEC describes itself as a nonpartisan group that does not engage in lobbying activities, which would be illegal under its 501(3)c tax code status. However, the organization that spent more than $2 million in its last fiscal year bringing the lips of corporations to the ears of conservative state legislators says on its tax form that it is only in the business of “sharing research and educational info.”
Common Cause, the government watchdog group, targeted ALEC in July in a letter to the IRS saying ALEC is violating its tax status.
“The American Legislative Exchange Council is the mechanism through which some of America’s largest corporations are seeking to secure legislation designed to advance their bottom lines,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “They have every right to do so, but they appear to be evading lobbying disclosure laws, and the tax breaks they’re exploiting constitute a public subsidy for their profit-driven lobbying. That’s not right.”
ALEC National Chairman, Louisiana state Rep. Noble Ellington, a conservative Democrat turned Republican, responded with a statement: “ALEC does not lobby; takes no role in partisan campaign activities; and has no involvement in campaign contributions made by any individual, company, or political action committee.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, says that even if ALEC is within North Carolina rules that strictly limit lobbyists’ gifts, its approach violates the law’s spirit.
“We have regulations to stop a lawmaker from being wined and dined here, and I’m not certain there is a difference in what ALEC is doing, flying them off to some nice place and there are some perks involved there,” Phillips said. “It’s not a true end run of our lobbying laws, but it sort of smacks against the spirit of what we put lobbying laws in place for.”
Brubaker hears the complaints about ALEC as a kind of compliment. “It’s only because we are becoming very popular that the left is taking shots at us,” he says. “We like that.”