I Attended an ALEC Conference — and Found an Alternative Universe

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George W. Bush's Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt addresses members of the American Legislative Exchange Council Thursday, July 29, 2004. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

George W. Bush's Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt addresses members of the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2004. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The post originally appeared at The Progressive.

Last week I traveled to Missouri to attend my second American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference.

As a state legislator from Wisconsin, I joined ALEC last year. That was the beginning of my journey into a parallel world. In the ALEC otherworld, the three branches of government are: 1) Multinational corporations, including Anheuser-Busch and Koch Industries, 2) Right-wing think tanks networked together through the State Policy Network, and 3) State legislators like me — although, as a progressive Democrat, I don’t fit the mold. Most of my colleagues who belong to ALEC are Republicans and many are tea partiers.

The three branches work together to construct and advance model bills in state legislatures throughout the country to further ALEC’s agenda of corporate dominance.

When I asked one of my fellow attendees to take my picture, an ALEC employee forbade it.
The gathering in Missouri was smaller and more intimate than last August’s annual conference. But it started the same way. I received no pre-conference materials and had to ask the hotel clerk when and where to check in.

Strict conference rules applied. One attendee registering next to me was denied entrance because she did not have a photo ID. Signs throughout the conference reminded participants that ID badges “were required at all sessions,” with sign-in sheets and, in smaller sessions, individual introductions.

Secrecy reigned supreme.

When I asked one of my fellow attendees to take my picture, an ALEC employee forbade it.

But unlike my first experience at an ALEC conference, this time I no longer had anonymity. This conference was dominated by individual workgroups and subcommittees rather than large workshops and receptions. According to a right-wing blogger, an unidentified ALEC staffer had divulged that they were expecting me. For an organization that depends on secrecy to function, including refusing to disclose its members and member fees, revealing attendees was extraordinary.

In this smaller setting, ALEC’s internal inconsistencies were more evident.

A part of ALEC’s battle is to preserve an old economy, where coal, oil and gas remain supreme. Their defense of these industries represents the will of corporate members — Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil and Peabody Energy. Yet their regressive approach to energy policy conflicts with their professed allegiance to Jeffersonian “free market” principles and consumer choice.

Though the renewable energy sector is growing, is popular with the public and is generating new jobs — and the solar industry now employs 140,000 more people than our nation’s coal mines — conference attendees focused on hindering this sector, especially solar. Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, who recently received national attention about a racist tweet concerning NBA players, quipped, “solar is dumb.”

Legislators from Utah and Oklahoma bragged about slowing the development of solar energy in their states. Oklahoma Senator A.J. Griffin passed a bill to tax individuals using distributed generation from solar panels or wind turbines to “protect our most vulnerable utilities.” ALEC wants to tax people who use small scale solar or wind or who drive electric cars. According to ALEC, property owners should have a right to kill a person on their property, but not use solar or wind energies on their property without paying a tax.

ALEC’s guiding principle — supporting big business — turns the small-c conservative ideal of individual liberty and local control on its head. As Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson stated to an Education subcommittee, “We need to stomp out local control.” School boards and city councils take away liberties quicker than the federal government, he insisted. Local governing entities can be a roadblock to the ALEC agenda, so their power needs to be preempted and removed.

And as ALEC convenes a new working group on public school financing, the model bill that is in the works is a funding formula based on school performance with criteria set by state legislators. One ALEC legislator stated that school boards should be taken out of the equation all together, as they merely use children as “human shields.”

These policies hurt actual people. And it is, after all, the people who elect state representatives, not multinational corporations pushing their profit agenda.
Finally, there are the economics of the ALEC otherworld. I chuckled at the scorn directed at Minnesota, where, Rep. Garafalo remarked, “the inmates are running the asylum.” Minnesota raised taxes on the rich and invested the resulting revenue in public schools, including all-day kindergarten. In “Rich States, Poor States” — an ALEC publication that ranks states in terms of a 2013 State Economic Outlook — Minnesota ranks 46th, Wisconsin 15th and Mississippi 10th. Yet in 2012 Minnesota had one of the fastest growing economies in the nation, and currently has higher median incomes and lower unemployment and poverty rates than both Wisconsin and Mississippi (where a whopping 17.5 percent of families have incomes below the poverty level). The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts Minnesota near the top of private sector job growth in the Midwest, while Wisconsin lags near the bottom. In the ALEC otherworld, actual economics do not count.

It’s all about a business-friendly environment. Hello, Third World.

Unfortunately, under Governor Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature, ALEC model bills of today become the Wisconsin laws of tomorrow. At the last conference I attended, ALEC kicked off an initiative to amend the federal constitution to shut down the federal government. Several months later, AB 750, a resolution that came from that workshop and calls for a federal balanced budget amendment, passed the Wisconsin state Assembly. There have been many other ALEC bills that have become Wisconsin law, including one that makes it more difficult for sick and injured patients to access the courts, several that reduce citizens’ access to the ballot box, including voter ID, and a spate of efforts to privatize public education. Other ALEC model bills, such as preempting local living wage ordinances, have passed the state Assembly but did not get through the Senate. Not yet.

These policies hurt actual people. And it is, after all, the people who elect state representatives, not multinational corporations pushing their profit agenda.

By the end of the conference, one Texas attendee asked me “Are you that Wisconsin blogger?” He was the only person at the conference to acknowledge that I was not of the ALEC ilk. When I saw him again at the airport, he waved “See you next time.”

Indeed he will.

Chris Taylor is a state assemblywoman from Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter @ChrisTaylorWI.
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  • Anonymous

    This is essential work, Chris, shining daylight into the dark corners. Thank you for doing it!

  • http://albatross.org/ Albatross

    As far as I can tell, this is a revolutionary takeover of a democratic republic by the creation of a parallel system of governance which subverts elected representatives to do the will of those other than their constituents. I wish I were young and naive enough to wish for investigations, impeachments, and special elections.

  • Anonymous

    Actually I think the reps are doing the will of their true constituents. The ones that matter, anyway.

  • C. Howell

    I thank you so much for this type of reporting. We need to expose what this organization is doing. It’s plutocracy in motion and the vehicle to drive the final nail in our middle-class and our democratic republic. This is happening in real time while we debate invented scandals and pop culture…it’s truly sad.

  • Anonymous

    “Seig Heil bitches!”

    In this universe we call that unamerican. The end is near. Only pitchforks can save us:)))

  • Anonymous

    Well, that certainly meets my definition of a coup. We Boomers struck a blow against it. It’s time again, all you young whippersnappers.

  • Anonymous

    You were brave to go there. I hope you felt clean again after a few showers.

  • http://albatross.org/ Albatross

    Er, yeah, thanks. You did a thing 45 years ago and then coasted while ALEC got this entire infrastructure established right under your noses. Pardon me if my gratitude is somewhat strained.

  • Anonymous

    They should of been nuked while they were all in one place!

  • Don Kraar

    In the old SUPERMAN comics it was called the Bizarro World. Yet, this is the cesspool out of which totalitarian government grows.
    “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
    W. B. Yeats

  • Anonymous

    Socialism for the rich and no one else.

    Corporate Fascists Suck

  • Terri Pastorelli

    You, sir, are my new hero!

  • Anonymous

    I hope that “terrorists” never attack such a gathering of fine Americans as that.

  • Holly Hunter

    I heard about ALEC just a couple months ago from by father-in-law in South Dakota who told me it was just unbelievable. The state of South Dakota sent any legislator willing to go at state expense to last year’s ALEC conference. No wonder it is run with so much secrecy–they are promoting the interests of a small elite at the top of the economic ladder while the middle class, working class, and everyone else—about 90+% of the pop. are struggling to maintain their position and falling behind. Why are so many people either apathetic, ignorant or think they can someday join the wealthiest 5%. It ain’t going to happen. WAKE UP AMERICANS! We are just becoming pawns for the superrich and don’t even see it. You pay the taxes and they get tax cuts. They scare you into protecting them. Take back your government and throw the rich out of power.

  • Anonymous

    The thing to do is stop congress from having the power to make law! Make law by popular vote of the people and turn congress into glorified debaters. Someone has to make the case for the vote. I’m sure citizen groups will weigh in so rich owned congressmen are not the only ones dominating the debates. It’s a better solution than trying to endlessly counter fat cats with small donations from the powerless. Just change the Constitution since it’s being exploited by the rich to corrupt government with money! OUR DEMOCRACY SHOULD NOT BE FOR SALE! BUT IT IS AND WE ALL KNOW IT! QUESTION IS, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?!

  • Patrick Hennessey

    *Should have

  • Anonymous

    Well that was enthusiastic.

    CA law makes it very easy to put a measure on the ballot. In practice, the ballot propositions are often put forth by big businesses and mega-wealthy individuals. Even where thats not the case, the debate is typically dominated by those who can afford better PR / more airtime / etc. Economic inequality is THE cause of Political inequality. We could juggle all the rules, rewrite the constitution, but political equality simply can’t exist in the face of economic inequality. 500-1 salary ratios being passed down (and growing) generation to generation is not a path we can sustain. That is why most of the country thinks the govt should regulate greenhouse gases not weed, but congress votes to repeal obamacare 50 times

  • Anonymous

    I knew what he meant, and apparently so did you. I don’t think this guy is going to be our team’s “get a brain morans”

  • Joan Harris

    Very interesting article. Assemblywomen Taylor’s report from the ‘lions den’ is chilling. As long as money corrupts people, corporations will do harm to education, the environment and our democracy.

  • Anonymous

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant!

  • C. Howell

    Mandatory publicly funded campaigns…NOW!

  • Joan Harris

    Some excellent ideas on how to take back our country. As I read them, I realize I have no hope that this can be resolved. Remember Senator John McCain’s Campaign Finance Reform proposal?

  • C. Howell

    I do, Joan, and, as all campaign finance reform has been, it left too many loopholes and still left the money flowing. But the stiff resistance to McCain/Feingold, which wasn’t much, shows the depth of malfeasance.

    The power of money influence can make us all feel hopeless. Especially when that money influence has convinced so many to cling to a pro-corporate economic ideology.

    We must unite under a single platform of removing money from politics. When the Occupy movement first began I emailed a few of the groups and got active in running with this meme (a meme I’ve pushed since the early 90’s) but was disappointed with their unwillingness to make taking money out of politics a central theme. I believe the Occupy movement completely blew a golden opportunity to unite everyone under a single theme that both conservatives and liberals would support. After all, it would remove both corporate and union money.

    When you look at this issue at the state level you will see Republicans opposing reform and most Democrats staying neutral. It feels hopeless because we can’t even get a conversation going on this topic…maybe the greatest topic of our time.

    Keep the faith, Joan:)

  • Anonymous

    Progressives need their own ALEC to come up with progressive legislation.

  • Mary Wehrheim

    We have a parlor game we like to play in Kansas…pick out the ALEC designer bills. The purpose of Kansas in the cosmic scheme of things is to serve as a warning to others.

  • Anonymous

    It would be interesting to know the composition of ALEC — my guess is overwhelmingly white male. Their goal isn’t just greed; money and power provide the means to oppose a pluralistic society. This isn’t conservatism, it’s totalitarianism — wealth and power centralized in the hands of large corporations and wealthy individuals to promote their socioeconomic agenda. A true conservative would support local control, including decentralized power generation (solar/wind). We should vote out any politician unwilling to renounce membership in this secret society.

  • Anonymous

    No coasting by me but we did get older. I blame you youngsters who did not pick up the ball we passed to you.

  • Anonymous

    Find out more about ALEC and representatives in your state at the ALEC Exposed (dot) org.website.

  • NJHope

    There is no reason to guess at what or whom they are, just read and watch. It is an incredibly destructive to democracy organization, in my opinion.


    Always grateful to the VOICES of reason who research, who find out and report on what the most evil people in our society are capable of. Thank you, Chris Taylor!

    Be grateful to Bill Moyers for his every effort to spread the truth to those willing to know. No one is more grateful for Bill than I.

  • Ardi Hominid

    Chris Taylor, Thanks for going and thanks for sharing.

  • Arizona Eagletarian

    ALEC is a champion of throwing up roadblocks to disruptive innovation… the very definition and epitome of regressiveness.

  • Anonymous

    And you’ve done what? I won’t hold my breath to see what you might or might not do.

  • Anonymous

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  • http://albatross.org/ Albatross

    Invented the Internet and kicked off the MMORPG industry.

  • ©Dave ℗ Rickmers®

    Power absolutely corrupts. These people are a menace to society.

  • http://www.campbellpetro.com/ Donald Campbell

    ALEC is government by corporations run wild. We are now governed by the almighty dollar or its equal. Forget about “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Democracy has taken a giant step backward and the only remedy is to throw the rascals out!

  • KSEubanks

    Not to mention the fact that AFTER y’all did your thing 45 years ago a goodly chunk of your generation then STARTED things like ALEC. So, thanks for that too…

  • Anonymous

    Facism, plain and simple.

  • Pete Joachim

    How Rome Fell – from within. Alec = domestic terrorists.

  • Anonymous

    There are always competing ideas. Are yours coherent enough to bring about the change you seek? Do you have the boys to put them to the test?

  • Anonymous

    We invented the miniskirt. What more do you want?

    Then too we brought down a criminal President, changed backward and prohibitive social norms, reinvented music, put a stop to the second most senseless war of our lifetimes, cleaned up the planet, and, among other things, put an end to institutional racism and brought many individual attitudes toward it around.

    What will you do?

  • KSEubanks

    That’s actually a funny reply considering you know nothing of what I’ve done, said, written, etc…Shoot, I even use my own name in these things which most people don’t do. So the “Effin coward” part of your reply is completely uncalled for.
    Thanks though. That type of reply tells a lot about who’s writing, doesn’t it?

  • Anonymous

    Well c’mon. By all means, let’s hear it. What have you done?

  • KSEubanks

    No thanks. I have no need – and no desire – to justify my actions to an anonymous ‘voice’ on an Internet comment board. Your “effin coward” statement was enough to show the kind of person I’m dealing with and I see no reason to fuel any more BS along those lines.
    I am satisfied that I am doing all I can to turn things back around in our country and that’s enough for me. I just think it’s funny as hell that the “don’t trust anyone over 30″ generation have given us the problems with our financial sector, grossly overpaid CEO’s, leaders of companies that trash the environment, leaders of companies that trash human rights, the list goes on and on. Seems the good work y’all did was driven by youthful exuberance rather than true belief in the causes.