Lisa Graves Updates Us on ALEC

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Last fall, Moyers & Company aired the United States of ALEC, a report on the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of — ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. In statehouses around the country, hundreds of pieces of boilerplate ALEC legislation are proposed or enacted that would, among other things, dilute collective bargaining rights, make it harder for some Americans to vote, and limit corporate liability for harm caused to consumers — each accomplished without the public ever knowing who’s behind it.

The response from viewers has been amazing. We’ve received updates to our interactive map naming local legislators who are affiliated with ALEC, as well as hundreds of comments and emails about the revelations contained in the report. Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), one of the watchdog organizations keeping tabs on ALEC, recently visited our offices and updated us on what ALEC’s been up to lately.

Riley: On the PR Watch website last week, I saw that ALEC may be about to undergo a makeover, starting with its name. What happened?

Lisa Graves, Center for Media and Democracy

Lisa Graves: ALEC is urging its members to no longer use the acronym. In a note to ALEC legislators and private sector members, ALEC’s spokesman said: “You may have noticed we are limiting the use of the acronym ‘ALEC.’ Over the past year, the word ‘ALEC’ has been used to conjure up images of a distant, mysterious, Washington alphabet organization of unknown intentions,” which he says could not be further from the truth, adding that “the organization has refocused on the words ‘Exchange’ and ‘Council’ to emphasize our goal of a broad exchange of ideas to make government work better and more efficiently.” This re-branding is a classic PR technique. Big Tobacco used it to try to distance some of its brands with negative consumer users.

This latest PR manuever underscores the success of, the investigation that we at CMD launched two years ago, to make more Americans aware of ALEC’s extreme agenda. This rebranding news comes from open records requests that CMD has been pursuing with Common Cause, to try to uncloak ALEC communications with public officials.

Riley: The New Hampshire legislature has been systematically overturning ALEC model bills since the new legislature went into session in January. Can you tell us more about that?

Graves: According to Rep. Marcia Moody, over the past 3 months the Granite State has killed or repealed a number of ALEC bills including Voter ID, big tobacco tax breaks, school vouchers, stand your ground, prison privatization and minimum wage restrictions. Granite State Progress helped connect the dots on these by posting the ALEC bills from CMD’s side-by-side with the New Hampshire versions, showing the identical language. They consider 28 bills that have been introduced in the state legislature to be ALEC model bills or heavily influenced by ALEC principles. As The Washington Post reported after the election last fall, “Democrats made huge gains in the [New Hampshire] statehouse, where they won back the majority, and narrowed the GOP advantage in the state Senate. The party also snatched away both U.S. House seats from Republican hands, and held the governorship.” The voters’ support for Democrats in the state has allowed the party to create a firewall against some parts of the ALEC agenda.

Riley: The National Employment Law Project released a report in February entitled The Politics of Wage Suppression: Inside ALEC’s Legislative Campaign Against Low-Paid Workers. According to the report, ALEC has been drafting model legislation that essentially makes it impossible for local governments to enact living wage ordinances or minimum wage laws higher than state or federal limits. Tell us more about that.

Graves: For quite some time ALEC has been strongly opposed to a minimum wage law, a living wage law or any iteration of those. In Wisconsin, for example, there was a long battle to get sick leave in the city of Milwaukee. It ultimately went to a citywide vote and the voters voted for a mandatory sick leave option for their workers.

So at the next ALEC meeting, there was a special interest group rep promoting an ALEC model law to preempt cities from having different wage laws and local sick leave laws than a state. It’s similar to what they did with firearms, which is to preempt local democracy.

Riley: What happened with firearms?

Graves: In the mid 1990s, ALEC started pushing for what’s called the Consistency in Firearms Act. Cities had tremendous gun violence problems — New York City, Chicago, D.C. — and were grappling with the gun problem in a way that states as a whole might not, because you  have a larger population and greater population density in metropolitan areas. So cities were passing their own gun rules to try to protect their citizens and increase safety. What ALEC was attempting to do was preempt those city rules. They adopted the consistency in firearms regulation, which basically said that a city could not pass a more restrictive provision than what would be permissible throughout the state, meaning you couldn’t divide the hunting population in a rural part of a state from the urban population by having logically different gun rules about what kind of weapon you might have or be able to carry.

At the same time, ALEC had joined the side of the NRA in suits being brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, suits trying to enable them to strike down city gun laws. While Bush was in office, they were successful with this approach, and they were able to strike down the D.C. law.

And then, emboldened by the 2010 election, they took up an amendment by the NRA that would change the Consistency in Firearms Act to expressly say cities could not bar machine guns. They wanted to take down the automatic weapons ban on the basis that this is a fundamental right that the government should not have the power to ban any type of gun. That was their official policy as of late 2011. And it’s horrifying.

Riley: One of the aspects that we covered in the “United States of ALEC” is the way these model bills are crafted: corporate lobbyists and state legislators working to write laws behind closed doors. You released a report on an ALEC program in which state legislators receive “scholarships” to attend conferences sponsored by corporations where presumably, some of these model bills are discussed. Can you tell us what you found out?

Graves: We chronicled ALEC’s “scholarship fund” activities from 2006 to 2012. It shows how lawmakers solicit corporations to fund their trips to ALEC meetings, and how the money passes through ALEC. In the process, the public is kept in the dark.

Riley: And what happens on these trips? What are the topics that they’re getting “educated on” with these scholarships?

Graves: What happens is an entity like PhRMA, which is representing some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, is paying to help fund these trips to these resorts where, lo and behold, legislation that is favorable to PhRMA is peddled. It happens at the ALEC conventions in the spring, summer and fall and then some other meetings that they have, like a so-called Tort Reform Boot Camp. The legislators fly down, often they bring their families, the scholarship funds pay for the legislators’ travel, not their families’ travel, but the scholarship funds pay for the hotel, where their families stay and they have access to meals. The legislators may pay a nominal fee for the convention. Sometimes that’s reimbursed, sometimes it’s not. But in essence, once they get there, all their meals are covered, their hotel stay is covered.

One dinner is like a state dinner in which the delegation of that state goes off to have dinner with lobbyists, some of whom funded the lawmakers’ trips through the ALEC “scholarships.” They go to some backroom of a restaurant and wine and dine and talk about whatever they talk about, which presumably, is policy agendas that these corporations want.

What we’ve heard happens is that all the lobbyists put their credit cards on the table and they divide the cost of the entire meal. And in a state like Wisconsin, where a legislator cannot accept a cup of coffee from a registered lobbyist, it’s astonishing that they act as though they’re in a sort of a law-free zone as soon as they leave the state, that they can accept whatever they want. It’s a very chummy experience.

Riley: How much money is available in these scholarships? How many lawmakers receive these travel funds?

Graves: This is an interesting story. My organization along with Beau Hodai from DBA Press, who has done freelance reporting for In These Times and most recently for CMD — has been doing open records requests across the country about ALEC and ALEC-related groups. One of the items that came out of one of Hodai’s requests was a blanked out redacted spreadsheet. That was for 2009, but when you looked at the next tab — for 2008, 2007, 2006 — all of those pages were full. The person had sent us the full national spreadsheet of every single dollar that had been raised for every state scholarship fund and every single dollar that had gone out in a three-year period: 2006 through 2008. It showed by name, by amount and by date each corporation that had given and each legislative member who had taken [the funds].

We also found data for other states — for instance, Wisconsin and Arizona — that made it possible for us to piece together a story. But the upshot of it was until that document came out of this open records request there was no national accounting for how much money was really flowing from corporations, particularly corporate lobbyists, to legislators to fund these trips. Suddenly, we had a complete package for three years. Now, it’s not the most recent three years, but in that three-year period — 2006 to 2008 — it was nearly $2 million dollars. With Common Cause’s Arn Pearson, we extrapolated that if they were spending at the same rate for the next three years (2009 to 2011) the total (for all six years) would be approximately $4 million dollars worth of trips for lawmakers. In 2010, ALEC announced that it had more members than ever. So we think that’s a conservative estimate.

Riley: Which state’s lawmakers received the most money?

Graves: The South Carolina delegation of legislators was the top recipient, the ignominious leader of the pack in taking corporate money for scholarships for these fancy-schmancy resorts. And then included in that top five, surprisingly, was Wisconsin. So that was particularly surprising for us, not just because we’re Madison-based but because Wisconsin has a reputation for being such a clean government state with this cup of coffee rule, which had been a national standard for ethics and influence for lawmakers.

California was in the top ten. But California has a larger delegation so that wasn’t as surprising to us. The state that was on the rise was Arizona. Even though in the cumulative analysis of how much they had received over time they were lower — they were in the top ten but not the top five — if you looked at their most recent year for which we obtained data (2010), they were surging.

One of the interesting things we saw on our open records request was that Debbie Lesko, the Arizona statehouse whip, is also the public sector chair of the Arizona delegation, soliciting money from corporations for trips for ALEC legislators and looking at who hadn’t given yet to try to get those corporations to try to pony up or give more. She also led the effort to send them thank you notes for funding the scholarships, which included funding for “state” dinners with the corporate sponsors and legislators. So there’s no notion that this is secret — that members are somehow in the dark about who’s really funding their fabulous trips, where their families plan ahead in many instances to go on this four-day weekend or weeklong trip to a fabulous resort.

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