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Wednesday, 05 December 2012 07:32

ALEC in Chains

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Last week in Florida, while sitting in a car listening to music with friends, 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis was shot to death by 45-year-old Michael David Dunn. Dunn said he felt "threatened" and planned to invoke the state's “Stand Your Ground” gun law if he was forced to go to trial. The murder of Davis came nearly ten months after another African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was gunned down on the streets of  Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, who also initially invoked “Stand Your Ground.”

At the time of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, a little-known but powerful political organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.

Thanks in great part to the work of The Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed project, it was discovered that the organization -- founded in 1973 and largely operating under a veil of secrecy -- had been instrumental in initiating “Stand Your Ground” legislation, the law that has been used to shield shooters from prosecution. The Center for Media and Democracy is an investigative watchdog group that publishes PRwatch.org and SourceWatch.org and created ALECexposed.org in July 2011 after a whistleblower gave CMD bills secretly voted on by corporate lobbyists and state legislators behind closed doors at meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The revelations of ALEC’s role in the creation of “Stand Your Ground” gun laws was not the only aspect of ALEC’s work that suddenly faced scrutiny. As Brendan Fischer recently reported for The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, the organization faced intense criticism “over its role in advancing laws that make it harder to vote, that criminalize immigrants, protect corporations from civil liability, thwart environmental regulations, and cut holes in the social safety net -- all while enjoying tax-exempt ‘charitable’ status.”

Beth Hawkins, writing for minnpost.com pointed out that ALEC “capped off a summer in which it hemorrhaged corporate and nonprofit members”: Besides a spate of bad publicity, ALEC experienced a number of corporate defections (including General Motors, General Electric, Amazon.com, and Coca-Cola), and lost more than 50 individual resignations. In addition, more than 100 “ALEC member legislators lost their seats in the 2012 elections,” according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

More recently, ALEC got involved with the conservative climate-change-denying think tank, the Heartland Institute. This partnership caused the Solar Energy Industries Association to announce it was dropping out of ALEC, since the organization and Heartland are trying “to make the case that RPS [renewable portfolio standards] mandates are economically harmful to states,” according to solarindustrymag.org. The Boston Globe reported that “James Taylor, the Heartland Institute’s senior fellow for environmental policy, said he was able to persuade most of ALEC’s state legislators and corporate members to push for a repeal of laws requiring more solar and wind power use on the basis of economics. ‘’Renewable power mandates are very costly to consumers throughout the 50 states, and we feel it is important that consumers have access to affordable electricity,’ Taylor said.”

Nevertheless, despite all the corporate and individual dropouts and negative publicity, the tax-exempt organization continues to function.

ALEC recently held its annual "States and Nation Policy Summit" in Washington, D.C. to figure out how to move forward with its pro-corporate, anti-regulatory, anti-union, anti-tax, anti-government agenda after a very difficult year.

At it’s meeting, according to PR Watch’s Fischer, ALEC members was scheduled to hear “presentations like ‘Best Practices for Debt Collection and Tax Amnesty’ from student loan company Sallie Mae … a talk on state unemployment from the Koch-funded Mercatus Center …  [a presentation by] [r]epresentatives of the Mortgage Bankers Association … [and a discussion by] The Heritage Foundation's James Sherk [on] … how to limit union influence.’"

But unlike years past when “model legislation” – the catch phrase that basically describes the organization’s mission – was all over the agenda, this year “only a handful of new ‘model’ bills are on the agenda,” Fischer recently reported.  “According to ALEC task force documents obtained through open records requests, the meeting will largely consist of deciding which bills from its vast library to ‘sunset’ and which to retain or amend -- an apparent effort to scrub their history of far-right model bills, and likely a response to a year of intense criticism.” 

D.B.A. Press, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and Common Cause recently issued a report, authored by CMD’s executive director Lisa Graves, and titled, “Buying Influence: How the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Uses Corporate-Funded ‘Scholarships’ to Send Lawmakers on Trips with Corporate Lobbyists.”

According to the report, ALEC “has raised and spent an estimated $4 million in funds from its corporate backers since 2006 to pay for state lawmakers’ trips to meet with corporate CEOs and lobbyists at ALEC sponsored events at posh retreats, according to internal ALEC documents and other investigative work.”

“Buying Influence” points out how ALEC’s influence peddling scheme works: “ALEC state chairs (hand-picked legislators and private-sector members) solicit corporate money that goes into a ‘Scholarship Fund’ that is then used to pay for lawmakers’ trips. Records show that ALEC legislators know who’s paying their way — some state leaders even urge lawmakers to send thank-you notes to their patrons — but everyone else is kept in the dark.”
As to “Stand Your Ground” in Florida: PR Watch’s Brian Fischer pointed out that “a panel appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott to review the Stand Your Ground law endorsed the legislation, ignoring empirical evidence showing the laws correspond with an increase in homicides. Half of the lawmakers on the panel are ALEC members.”