Eye on ALEC

ALEC Goes Hyper Local With New Nationwide Network

The American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC — has had quite a bit of success writing “model” bills that advance the interests of its corporate backers and then wining and dining friendly state lawmakers to grease the wheels for their passage. Now, the organization is looking to replicate that success on the local level with a new sister organization, according to a report by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian.

Pilkington writes:

The American Legislative Exchange Council, founded in 1973, has become one of the most pervasive advocacy operations in the nation. It brings elected officials together with representatives of major corporations, giving those companies a direct channel into legislation in the form of ALEC “model bills.”

Critics have decried the network as a “corporate bill mill” that has spread uniformly-drafted rightwing legislation from state to state. ALEC has been seminal, for instance, in the replication of Florida’s controversial “stand-your-ground” gun law in more than 20 states.

Now the council is looking to take its blueprint for influence over statewide lawmaking and drill it down to the local level. It has already quietly set up, and is making plans for the public launch of, an offshoot called the American City County Exchange (ACCE) that will target policymakers from “villages, towns, cities and counties.”

The new organization will offer corporate America a direct conduit into the policy making process of city councils and municipalities. Lobbyists acting on behalf of major businesses will be able to propose resolutions and argue for new profit-enhancing legislation in front of elected city officials, who will then return to their council chambers and seek to implement the proposals.

Read the rest at The Guardian.

Florida Man Uses Stand Your Ground Defense in Killing of Black Teen Over Loud Music

Friends of Jordan Davis comfort each other outside the funeral home where the visitation with Davis' family was taking place at the Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home in Mandarin area of Jacksonville, Fla., late Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

Friends of Jordan Davis comfort each other outside the Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home in Mandarin area of Jacksonville, Fla., late Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

The killing of another unarmed black teen by a white man claiming self defense under Florida’s shoot-first law — aka “Stand Your Ground” — has made national news. The incident occurred at a gas station in late 2012, when 45-year-old Michael Dunne allegedly ended an altercation over loud music coming from a car with a group of teens by firing multiple shots into the vehicle. Seventeen year-old Jordan Davis died in his friend’s arms. (Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed Davis’ mother for The Atlantic.)

According to police, Dunne then got into his car with his girlfriend and went to eat a pizza. Dunne later claimed that he feared for his life, and only fired when one of the teens brandished a gun and started to exit the vehicle. Police found no weapons, and witnesses said Dunne was the only person to get out of his car. While awaiting trial for the killing, Michael Dunne wrote a series of “shockingly racist” letters about the case.

At The New York Times’ website, filmmaker Orlando Bagwell, a child of the civil rights movement and one of the producers of PBS’s Eyes on the Prize, has a new short film — part of their excellent “Op-Doc” series — about the killing. Here’s his introduction to the piece:

I grew up with parents who were active in the civil rights movement. My mother and father joined demonstrations to integrate public facilities and theaters. They believed nonviolent intervention was a centerpiece of a safe, healthy society.

Now grown and a parent myself, I am still strongly wedded to those ideals. But I see my children confronting a new violent reality in American society. The “Stand Your Ground” laws spreading across the country allow the use of deadly force when people believe they are in imminent danger and have exhausted other means of escape.

A perception of danger might be reasonable, but can any of us fairly determine whether it justifies irrevocable deadly force? As we’ve seen with the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (both young black men shot by white men), these laws also create a climate of fear that can prey upon and inflame racial tensions.

The seven-minute documentary includes footage of Dunne’s initial interview with police. You can view it at The New York Times website.

North Carolina’s Conservative Shift Good for ALEC

In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, House Speaker Thom Tillis greets Representative-elects during an orientation session for new House members at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
House Speaker Thom Tillis greets Representative-elects during an orientation session for new House members at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC, in December 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Raleigh News & Observer’s John Frank writes that one side effect of that state’s conservative shift is an increased American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) presence in the North Carolina legislature.

ALEC is a conservative organization that brings corporations and state legislators together behind closed doors to produce to write what it calls “model” bills that the lawmakers then introduce as their own. Frank previously reported that the group’s fingerprints could be seen on numerous pieces of legislation introduced in the General Assembly, including new voter ID requirements, private school vouchers, anti-union measures, a bill to shield fast food companies from lawsuits related to obesity and a bill to quash asbestos-exposure lawsuits. The organization also has a man in the governor’s office: Former State Rep. and State ALEC Chairman Fred Steen is now Governor Pat McCrory’s legislative lobbyist. MORE

Fighting to Rein in Dark Money

(Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Every news cycle seems to bring another revelation of the corrupting influence of dark money on American politics.

In just the past few weeks, reporters and watchdog groups have exposed a network of state-level advocacy groups posing as think-tanks, revealed new details about a little-known organization called DonorsTrust that promises its wealthy donors it will keep contributing to conservative causes after they die, and discovered ALEC’s plans to bounce back after public scrutiny of the organization spooked a number of its corporate sponsors. MORE

Don’t Be Evil? Google Funding a Slew of Right-Wing Groups

This post originally appeared at PR Watch.

Wikimedia Commons

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference) and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

US corporations are not required to publicly disclose their funding of political advocacy groups, and very few do so, but since at least 2010 Google has chosen to voluntarily release some limited details about grants it makes to US nonprofits. The published list from Google is not comprehensive, including only those groups that “receive the most substantial contributions from Google’s US Federal Public Policy and Government Affairs team.” MORE

How a Shadowy Network of Corporate Front Groups Distorts the Marketplace of Ideas

Image: Center for Media and Democracy/ Progressnow

In 1971, Lewis Powell, who would become a Supreme Court justice the following year, penned a memo calling on the American business community to aggressively engage in shaping the country’s political discourse and regulatory landscape. The “American economic system is under broad attack,” he wrote. He said the time had come to fight back. “Business must learn . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

For Powell, it was all about organizing and planning over the long-term to sway public opinion and shape public policies. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” he wrote. MORE

Playing Chicken With Food Safety

(Photo: Public Citizen/flickr)

The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the US Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect – bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves. Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse!

The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness. Not only will this increase in speed – by 25 percent or more — raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong – even deadly — with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat — but those sprays may actually damage the health of the workers. Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. What’s more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands. MORE

Conservative Lawmaker Defies Open-Records Law to Keep ALEC Dealings Secret

Courtesy of Flickr user Mikasi.

This Article originally appeared at The Nation.

In the two years since the ALEC Exposed project revealed the role that the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council plays in shaping the laws of states across the nation, the group has had a much harder time hiding its meddling.

In fact, so much national attention has been paid to ALEC’s role in promoting restrictive voter ID laws and controversial Stand Your Ground initiatives that ALEC officials announced last year that they would shut down the task force that was responsible for promoting those measures.

But ALEC is still putting representatives of corporations together with state legislators to craft “model legislation” — especially with regard to economic and regulatory issues. And the group’s national treasurer has come up with a novel scheme for keeping the projects secret.

The Wisconsin Republican says she is exempt from open-records laws, and her state’s Republican attorney general says that’s cool with him. MORE

Renewable Energy Overpowers ALEC

Windmills lining the Altamont Pass generate electricity on Sunday, May 12, 2013, near Livermore, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Windmills lining the Altamont Pass generate electricity on Sunday, May 12, 2013, near Livermore, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Earlier this month, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), celebrated its 40th birthday in Chicago, where the group’s corporate and legislative members gathered to discuss policy plans and new model legislation for the coming year. It was a party of multiple themes, touting the usual ALEC agenda of cutting taxes, reducing the power of unions and finding new ways to spend public funds on privately operated schools. But perhaps the most urgent discussion point was the one surrounding what are known as renewable portfolio standards (RPS) — laws that promote cleaner energy sources to better protect our fragile environment. For the past year, ALEC and its members have been rolling out legislation that attempts to repeal these laws.

Their effort, for the most part, has failed.

RPS regulations exist for a variety of reasons. They promote a healthier environment through the use of renewable energy like wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and some types of hydroelectricity. They also promote the development of industries that, according to a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “provide jobs and bring investments, tax revenues and other substantial economic benefits to local communities.” Lastly but not least importantly, their goal is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which contribute significantly to climate change. MORE

Inside the ‘ALEC Universe’

Representative Chris Taylor is a Democrat elected to the Wisconsin legislature in 2011. Last week, she attended the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual conference in Chicago. Writing about her experience at The Progressive magazine’s website, she describes her experience inside the “ALEC universe” and writes: “ALEC members have been quietly working out of the public eye to develop their agenda so that when given the opportunity, they are ready to start creating an ALEC nation. That time has come. And they are ready.”

We caught up with her by phone back in Wisconsin to talk about what she found out about the conservative policy-making machine.

Riley: Why did you want to attend the conference? What did you hope to achieve there?

Taylor: I’m very new in the legislature. I came in the middle of last term. So I missed a lot of the Act 10 [debate]. I was working on various issues when all of that was going on. But I wanted to learn more. I wanted to have a better understanding of the group, so that I could, when I needed to, fight some of these very regressive policies better.

I think it’s so incredibly important for people to understand where these [model] bills are coming from and try to understand the rationale. I was quite blown away by the extent of where [Wisconsin] policy is coming from, because so much of it is coming from this group.

Riley: ALEC conferences are known for being very security conscious. Were you incognito? Did you wear a badge with your party affiliation?

Taylor: No. I did wear a badge with my name and that I was a Wisconsin legislator. Every person there had a badge on. When you registered you had to present ID, which is really unusual. I mean I’ve been to conferences throughout my whole life, I’ve never had to present an ID. There was a big assumption that I was a Republican. Every person I talked to assumed that I was a Republican.

Riley: And were you open with the fact that you weren’t, or –

Taylor: No, if somebody asked me I was not going to lie. I really was there just to listen and to try to figure out where some of these people were coming from.

One guy I was talking to, who was from one of these right wing think tanks was saying we need to curb Obama’s reckless power with these administrative regulations, and he wanted a federal constitutional amendment saying Congress has to approve federal regulations. I said, I don’t think most people are going to want to amend the Constitution for that. I don’t think that ignites people. Maybe it does on the far right, but most people don’t really care about that. And he said, “Oh, well, you really don’t need people to do this. You just need control over the legislature and you need money, and we have both.”

That sentiment was underscored so many times to me, that they don’t want people involved in the political process, or in the policy process. And that seems to be the intent in a lot of ways: You have a think tank in every state and all they do is come up with these very, very regressive policies, you have corporations who are going to benefit so they fund it all, and then you have the legislators as your foot soldiers to carry out the tasks.

There were a couple of instances where legislators actually did challenge some of the policies, but they always lost. The legislators were admonished many times during this conference for not doing enough and for not standing up to the federal government more.

Riley: One of the think tanks that we’ve reported on, the Heartland Institute, sponsored a breakfast. They are a climate change denial think tank. Did you go to that?

Taylor: I did.

Riley: What was the presentation like?

Taylor: It was incomprehensible. I could not follow it. It was so zany and weird. He said CO2 was not that bad for us because crops grow bigger with a lot of CO2. My husband’s an environmental historian, so I asked him, “Is that true?” He said, “Yeah, but it doesn’t mean CO2’s good for you.” The whole premise was you need to challenge the left, that there’s many, many holes in global warming, and we don’t do enough to challenge them.

We also had a presentation on the Endangered Species Act at a lunch sponsored by the Texas Oil and Gas Association. The presenter said that the Endangered Species Act threatens the economy of every single state in the nation. It’s leading to high unemployment rates, threatens local economies, it doesn’t allow growth, etc. — that this is a matter of life and death, to get rid of the Endangered Species Act, because every state’s economy is going to topple if it remains in effect.

I wasn’t very impressed by the environmental presentations, frankly. I didn’t think they were very good.

Riley: What were you impressed by?

Taylor: I was really impressed by their infrastructure. I mean, we would never duplicate something like this on the left because, first of all, we would never take instructions from corporations, but the coordination that they have between these policy think tanks, the money and the legislators, in terms of just driving an agenda, it’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m fascinated by it because I’ve never seen anything like it from the left. I was the public policy director at Planned Parenthood, so I’m very familiar with building infrastructure. We did a lot of that in the state of Wisconsin. But we have nothing that I know of on the national front that connects all these things.

It is a well-oiled machine. They’re really organized, they’re really coordinated and they have the resources. And they’re not afraid to push it when they have the opportunities. Now they have 24 state legislatures that are Republican controlled and they have Republican governors. So they’ve had incredible success. They’ve had 71 bills introduced just this year that make it harder for most people who are injured to access the courts. We’ve certainly seen that here in Wisconsin. That was one of the first things that Walker did when he came in was push this tort reform through.

They have been waiting for 40 years to do some of the things they’re doing right now. They’ve been developing these model policies, making these connections and building these relationships, and when they had an opportunity, like right here in Wisconsin, they pushed it. They did not hesitate to push their extreme agenda, even though it hurts people. It doesn’t help the average person. It hurts people to say we’re not going to invest in public education. It hurts people to deprive the government of revenue by these massive tax cuts to mostly rich people.

ALEC’s Attempts to Thwart Obamacare

As part of our ongoing focus on the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, we checked in with health insurance executive turned industry whistleblower Wendell Potter to learn about ALEC’s efforts to influence the health care debate and undermine The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).

Lauren Feeney: ALEC turned 40 last week. How long has the organization been involved in trying to influence the health care debate?

Wendell Potter. Credit: Robin Holland

 Wendell Potter: I don’t know whether insurance companies were part of the initial founding of the organization, but I’m sure they were involved early on. Health insurance is regulated largely at the state level, and ALEC’s strategy is to work at the state level, bringing together state legislators and industry representatives to create “model bills” for state-level legislation. Insurance companies want to try to have consistency from state to state, so they have a vested interest in trying to make sure that laws that are to their benefit in one state are passed in others as well.

Feeney: How did you first encounter ALEC?

Potter: I’ve known of the organization for as long as I was in the insurance industry, and that goes back more than 20 years. The organization works very secretively, but a few years ago I became aware that people I used to work with were playing a role in drafting some of these model bills. Someone was able to disclose what ALEC has been doing, and I was able to review a lot of the model bills. It was pretty amazing, the scope and breadth of the legislation that the organization has been working on over the years to try to preserve the status quo for health care special interests.

Feeney: ALEC has been actively involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act (also known as the ACA or “Obamacare”). The organization produced a document called The State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare. Can you tell us about it?

Potter: It’s a step-by-step guide that ALEC put together to tell friendly lawmakers what they can do to try to derail the ACA. Efforts to repeal it have failed, so this is an effort to try to thwart the implementation, and it’s certainly something that lawmakers in various states have used or been inspired by.

Feeney: Have they been successful? Can you give us some examples?

Potter: One of the most far-reaching successes has been lawmakers in many states blocking the expansion of the Medicaid program, which was one of the most important aspects of the ACA, one of the chief ways covering more people. The Supreme Court ruling on the ACA allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion. ALEC led lawmakers to believe Medicaid expansion under the ACA would create a financial burden on the states, which is of course not true. In the initial years, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of the expansion, so refusing the expansion means leaving federal dollars on the table. By insuring more people, the expansion also removes the cost of treating uninsured patients, which taxpayers currently end up paying for. Nonetheless, ALEC is largely an ideological organization and they were able to persuade a lot of lawmakers. Many states that are controlled by either a Republican governor or Republican lawmakers (or both) have said that they do not plan to expand the Medicaid program, costing untold millions of Americans benefits that they otherwise would have.

Feeney: Some of the most extreme attempts to thwart the ACA have been in Missouri.

Potter: Yes, one of the most egregious is that the state passed legislation that prohibits any state worker from doing anything to help implement the Affordable Care Act in any way. The state also passed a bill that restricts consumer groups from helping people to understand the law and to make decisions on the best insurance options for them. This pertains to the Navigator Program, part of the ACA that provides funding for identifying and training people to help advise others on their options. Missouri established very stringent licensing requirements which make it almost impossible for anyone other than an insurance agent or broker to serve as a navigator, which is of course contrary to the intent of the law. But it protects the profits and the incomes of agents and brokers, which is what is really behind it.

Feeney: A number of states have enacted (and the vast majority of states have at least introduced) ALEC-model legislation called the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act. What’s that, and what does it mean for states where the law has been enacted?

Potter: Boy, that’s a very Orwellian title; it’s about anything but health care freedom. But they’re very savvy; they spend considerable time coming up with titles for these model laws that are anything but what the title says. Essentially what it aims to do is thwart the implementation of Obamacare and preserve the so-called free market system of health care — in other words, let the insurance companies do exactly what they have been doing, underwriting health risks in ways that make health insurance far too expensive for people who’ve been sick in the past and for people as they get older, and in many cases enabling insurance companies to refuse to sell coverage to people at any price because of preexisting conditions.

But of course, even in states that pass this law, it’s superseded by federal law.

An Exposed ALEC Faces Mass Protests and Calls for Scrutiny

This post first appeared at The Nation. 

Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the crowd protesting in Chicago yesterday at the American Legislative Exchange Council conference. (Twitter / @RevJJackson)

Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the crowd protesting the American Legislative Exchange Council conference in Chicago yesterday. (Twitter / @RevJJackson)

The American Legislative Exchange Council is better-known today than at any time in its 40 year history.

For most groups that seek to influence the governing process that would be something to celebrate. But ALEC, the corporate-funded project that develops “model legislation” to be introduced by conservative legislators across the country, historically worked off radar.

No more.

The group highlighted by the 2011 “ALEC Exposed” project of the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation, has in recent years been the subject of investigations and inquiries by media outlets across the country. It has been the focus of a nationally-broadcast “United States of ALEC” documentary by Moyers & Company. It has been called out by groups such as Color of Change and Common Cause. It has been abandoned by 49 corporations (from Amazon.com to Wal-Mart) that once paid for its initiatives. MORE

The End of the (Wire)Line

Main Street in downtown Hugo, Colo. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
Main Street in downtown Hugo, Colo. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

If you’re an American who lives in the middle of nowhere and you want phone and Internet service, you can pretty much have them, albeit in their least sexy form. That’s right, we’re talking about old-fashioned landlines for the phone and (shudder!) dial-up for the Internet. Hyper-wired, connected citizens have long since relegated those services to the dustbin of tech history. But for people living in remote areas (or some low-income neighborhoods), landlines and dial-up are still the lifeblood of telecommunications. Take them away, and you’re sending people back to the Stone Age of telecommunications.

But taking them away is effectively what big telecom companies — companies like AT&T to be specific — may well end up doing if they have their way.

A repairman fixes wires to restore telephone, cable and Internet service to a customer in Oklahoma. Over 18 million Americans depend on wires for their telephone and Internet service. (AP Photo)

A repairman fixes wires to restore telephone, cable and Internet service to a customer in Oklahoma. Roughly 19 million Americans depend on wires for their telephone and Internet service. (AP Photo)

First, a little background. Thanks to a mix of federal and state standards and mandates, even the poorest and remotest among us must receive what collectively are called “wireline” services, telephone and Internet provided via cords that come out of your wall and connect to your devices the old-fashioned way. They aren’t cool, but they work. And they keep many Americans connected.

So when AT&T filed a petition last year with the FCC asking to get out from under regulations and lay its wireline services to rest, it meant trouble for those who rely on them. MORE

Outrage is Rising, in Florida and Nationally, Against “Stand Your Ground”

This article originally appeared in The Nation.

When Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury instructions in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, those instructions declared that:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

Though Zimmerman’s lawyers chose to mount a traditional self-defense argument on their client’s behalf—eschewing a defense specifically based on the controversial Florida law that permits individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force even when they could retreat to safety—the role played in the case by the “stand your ground” law, and the theory that underpins it, has come into stark relief in the days since Zimmerman was acquitted.

The judge’s instructions, and a juror’s referencing of “stand your ground” in her discussion of the deliberations, serve to highlight long-term concerns about laws that permit the use of deadly force even when violence might be averted. MORE

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