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Discreet nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council writes bills for conservative lawmakers

By Pro Publica
Saturday, July 16, 2011 11:04 EDT
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This week, both the Los Angeles Times and The Nation put the spotlight on a little-known but influential conservative nonprofit that creates “model” state legislation that often make its way into law. The organization has helped craft some of the most controversial—and industry-friendly—legislation of recent years.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, crafted a model resolution for states calling the EPA’s attempts to regulate greenhouse gasses a “trainwreck” and asking Congress to slow or stop the regulations, the Times reported. A press release on ALEC’s site says that at least 13 other states have passed resolutions based on their model language.

ALEC was also involved in the writing of Arizona’s new immigration law, which gave police officers broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

Brought into being by a legendary conservative who also founded the well-known Heritage Foundation, ALEC has been around since the early 1970s. It calls itself a “policy making program that unites members of the public and private sectors in a dynamic partnership” based on “Jeffersonian principles.” Critics say it has devolved into a pay-for-play operation, where state legislators and their families get to go on industry-funded junkets and major corporations get to ghostwrite model laws and pass them on to receptive politicians.

In a multipart report this week, the Nation profiled ALEC’s influence on state legislation related to privatization and anti-union efforts, fighting Obama’s health care reform, privatizing public education and enacting voter ID laws, which critics say are designed to disenfranchise voters who are more likely to vote Democratic. The Nation also provides a deeper look at the financial and ideological links between the Koch brothers and ALEC.

ALEC representatives tell reporters that its mission is fundamentally “educational.” ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber told the LA Times, “Legislators should hear from those the government intends to regulate.”

“ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss,” another ALEC official, Michael Bowman, told NPR last year. “You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They’re just trying to learn a policy and understand it.” Neither Weber nor Bowman immediately responded to our requests for further comment.

Corporations pay hefty fees for the opportunity to discuss policy with legislators at ALEC’s conferences, and they also host banquets, open-bar parties and baseball games. Legislators, on the other hand, pay a nominal membership fee, and can be eligible for “scholarships” that pay for their conference attendance. When the legislators bring the model bills back to their state capitals, the role played by ALEC—or by the corporations—seems to be rarely, if ever, disclosed.

Crucially, ALEC says it is not a lobbying organization, and thus because of its nonprofit status, it does not have to disclose its donors or the amount of their donations. (The Times says Common Cause is trying to challenge ALEC’s nonprofit status.)

Perhaps the most striking example of this process is the involvement of officials from the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison company, in the creation of Arizona’s immigration law.

As NPR reported last year, officials from Corrections Corporation were in the room when Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce discussed his ideas about immigration at a 2009 ALEC conference.

Reports from Corrections Corporation reviewed by NPR indicated that their executives saw immigrant detention as their next big market, and that the company expected to bring in a “significant portion” of their revenue from Immigrations and Custom Enforcement.

What role the corporate officials played in the ALEC discussion is not known, but the “model legislation” that emerged from that session soon became the bill itself—“almost word for word,” according to NPR. The influence the private prison industry may have had on the law was not widely reported or discussed during the heated nationwide debate over the bill. (An “In These Times” reporter, whose early findings on the ALEC-Arizona connection were consistent with NPR’s later reporting, recently provided a more detailed look at the ALEC scholarships provided to Arizona legislators.)

Portions of the Arizona law are being challenged in federal court and have never been implemented. But, as NPR reported last year, similar bills were later introduced in eight other states.

ALEC has been in the media spotlight this week because the Center for Media and Democracy obtained and released an archive of more than 800 of ALEC’s model bills and resolutions. Their wiki site, ALEC Exposed, encourages readers to browse ALEC’s model bills by topic and share their findings about the documents using the hashtag #ALECexposed.

By Lois Beckett

ProPublica intern Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.

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Pro Publica
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.
 
 
 
 
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