BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
Privatizing America one statehouse at a time.
JOHN NICHOLS: Through ALEC, you can change the whole country without ever going to Washington, without ever having to go through a congressional hearing, without ever having to lobby on Capitol Hill, without ever having to talk to a president.
BILL MOYERS: The United States of ALEC.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. What if you were a corporation that stood to make a bundle if oil from the Canadian tar sands was imported by the United States?
And what if you thought federal laws to protect the environment were going to stop that oil-importing from happening?
You’d set your sights on Washington, spread some money around inside the beltway, hire big gun lobbyists to wine and dine the politicians, and stroke the regulators to let the “free market” work, right? Right. You would do all that, but you wouldn’t stop there.
You’d also take your battle to the states, because if you can get laws that serve your interest in one state capitol after another, it might not matter much what Washington has to say about it. Especially in a time like this when our national government is polarized, paralyzed, and dysfunctional and an obstinate minority is determined to keep it that way.
Our 50 state capitols have long been the place where things happen. The taxes you pay, the roads you drive on, the quality of the air you breathe, and the water you drink; your right to privacy and your right to vote – these all bear the imprint of laws passed by the legislature in your home state.
This report is about how some of those laws get enacted thanks to an organization called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a consortium of corporations and state legislators with so much muscle they’re changing the country one law at a time, one state at a time.
In the case of those Canadian tar sands, ALEC reportedly turned to an oil-industry lobby for a bill that makes it hard for the states to slow the flow of Canadian crude into this country, no matter the environmental consequences.
This is how ALEC has worked for years, pushing changes state by state that could never have been achieved if they had been put to the test of open and broad popular support. ALEC has been so successful working its will behind closed doors in secret, that most Americans had never even heard of it until recently. ALEC had never even been subjected to scrutiny on national television until the documentary report we broadcast last fall. That was a collaboration between Okapi Productions and the Schumann Media Center that I head. Schumann supports independent journalists and public watchdog groups like the Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause. Their investigators have been tracking the intersection between money and politics and finding ALEC squarely in the middle of it all across the country. There have been some new developments since our broadcast. So here’s that report, expanded and updated, on “The United States of ALEC.”
PAUL WEYRICH: They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. […] As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: I’ve often told people that I’ve talked to out on the campaign trail when they say “state what?” when I say I’m running for the state legislature. I tell them that the decisions that are made here in the legislature are often more important for your everyday life than the decisions the president makes.
JOHN NICHOLS: If you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns, you don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. The smart players put their money in states.
FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: ALEC has forged a unique partnership between state legislators and leaders from the corporate and business community. This partnership offers businessmen the extraordinary opportunity to apply their talents to solve our nation’s problems and build on our opportunities.
LISA GRAVES: I was stunned at the notion that politicians and corporate representatives, corporate lobbyists, were actually voting behind closed doors on these changes to the law before they were introduced in statehouses across the country.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: ALEC has been, I think, a wonderful organization. Not only does it bring like-minded legislators together, but the private sector engagement in partnership in ALEC is really what I think makes it the organization that it is.
BOB EDGAR: Corporate influence is tainting the legislative process, particularly out across the states. And average Americans are paying the price.
BILL MOYERS: The American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC. It’s headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. But it operates in every capitol in the country. And its efforts produce some hundreds of new state laws each year.
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I cover politics for a living. So, I've known about ALEC for a long time. I was always conscious of ALEC, but to be honest, not that excited about it.
MARY BOTTARI: I just thought it was, you know, folks got together and discussed their policy issues. That’s all I knew and that’s not unusual. And that’s how they portray themselves today. But now with this project we’ve learned all sorts of things that we didn’t know.
BILL MOYERS: In 2011, an investigation began cloak-and-dagger style at the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy.
LISA GRAVES: In the spring I got a call from a person who said that all of the ALEC bills were available and was I interested in looking at them. And I said I was.
BILL MOYERS: In early April, Lisa Graves, the head of the center, received a document drop from an ALEC insider.
LISA GRAVES: These are the bills that were provided by the whistleblower. That’s just the index.
BILL MOYERS: They would come to tell a story, she says, of how a seemingly innocuous nonprofit was actually fronting for some of the world’s most powerful corporations. ALEC had been changing the country by changing its laws – one state at a time.
LISA GRAVES: I remember the day well. It was first thing in the morning and I looked at the bills, and I was astonished. Until I saw the bills and the depth and breadth and duration, I did not have a full understanding of their reach and their impact.
BILL MOYERS: Graves was familiar with some of the bills because versions of them had already become law in many states. But she’d had no idea ALEC was behind them.
LISA GRAVES: Bills to change the law to make it harder for American citizens to vote, those were ALEC bills. Bills to dramatically change the rights of Americans who were killed or injured by corporations, those were ALEC bills. Bills to make it harder for unions to do their work were ALEC bills. Bills to basically block climate change agreements, those were ALEC bills.
BILL MOYERS: The Center for Media and Democracy is a small, nonprofit, investigative reporting group. Researchers here knew the documents they’d gotten had enormous implications. ALEC had been around for nearly four decades, but no one on the outside was even certain exactly who belonged to it. Graves and her team began to plow through ALEC documents, as well as public sources, to compile a list of the organizations and people who were or had been ALEC members. They found: hundreds of corporations, from Coca-Cola and Koch Industries to ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Walmart; dozens of right-wing think tanks and foundations; two dozen corporate law and lobbying firms; and some thousand state legislators – a few of them Democrats, the majority of them Republican.
LISA GRAVES: After I spent some time really looking through the bills, I went to dinner with my colleague here, Mary Bottari, and her husband, John Nichols.
MARY BOTTARI: Lisa called us and said, “I have some stuff. I don’t know how much stuff I have, but I have some stuff. I think this is going to be a big story.”
JOHN NICHOLS: This was an incredible thing. You know, ALEC, this organization that's usually been, you know, very much behind the scenes, sort of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.
BILL MOYERS: The Center was about to go on a mission.
LISA GRAVES: I was determined to really break through the story of ALEC and how its operations actually work. I was also determined that this not be like a Wikileaks situation where there was no context and no real storytelling about them.
BILL MOYERS: But telling that story wouldn’t be easy. ALEC does its most important business behind closed doors. And just understanding all of the bills was a task in itself.
MARY BOTTARI: And we decided to call in the troops.
BILL MOYERS: University of Wisconsin professor Joel Rogers has written widely on public policy. He was enlisted to examine the bills affecting working people.
JOEL ROGERS: So one big thing that ALEC was excited about were these ‘living wage’ laws. Have you heard of that, that were passing around cities? And they would – they had a bill where they said, the states should preempt that. They should use their power to forbid that. So it’s not – it’s not cuddly, you know, let’s have some neighborhood grass roots lively democracy.
BILL MOYERS: For health care issues, they called in a former insurance company executive turned industry watchdog and whistleblower, Wendell Potter.
WENDELL POTTER: And even though I had known of the organization for a long time, I was astonished. Just about everything that I knew that the health insurance industry wanted out of any state lawmaker was included in that package of bills.
BILL MOYERS: Potter found among the ALEC documents a resolution to urge congress to privatize Medicare, a bill that would limit the amount of money a plaintiff could win in a medical malpractice suit, and another that would thwart any effort by the federal government to impose a health insurance mandate.
MARY BOTTARI: Also, in the ALEC archive there’s a giant stack of school choice bills and they’re fat bills, too. And it’s this little slice of school choice, and that little slice of school vouchers, and it’s basically a long-term agenda of how to privatize public education. And this was not our issue area. So I started asking friends, “Who can I talk to about school choice and school vouchers?” And everybody pointed to Julie.
BILL MOYERS: Julie Underwood, attorney and professor of education at the University of Wisconsin.
JULIE UNDERWOOD: I've done education policy for a long time, and many times said people are trying to defund and dismantle public education, but I'd never put all of these forces together, until I saw all of those documents. The kind of changes that ALEC is trying to impose on public education isn't really just mild reform, it's actually creating a drastically different kind of educational system than what we have now.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC describes itself as a non-partisan partnership of state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public, devoted to limited government, free enterprise, and Jeffersonian principles. Founded close to 40 years ago, it produces what it calls “model legislation” –proposed laws that its legislative members introduce into statehouses throughout the country as their own. ALEC says close to a thousand bills, based at least in part on its models, are introduced each year. And an average of 200 pass.
JOHN NICHOLS: ALEC doesn't run candidates. ALEC doesn't train candidates. ALEC doesn't really play politics, you know, on Election Day. ALEC plays the day after the election. They look at who got elected and they say, "You should join ALEC."
BILL MOYERS: ALEC’s members and representatives either refused or didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. But it’s not hard to get the group’s philosophical point of view. ALEC’s own videos help to do that.
STEPHEN MOORE: If you want to get more revenues out of rich people, the enduring lesson of the last 50 years is you cut their tax rates, you don’t raise them, and by the way, that’s an important lesson for you all as state legislators.
BOB WILLIAMS: This is really a great time to re-size government and really hold the feet to the fire.
LEONARD GILROY: Actually it’s a pleasure to be able to stand here today and actually say there are cities that very closely resemble what we envisioned many decades ago where you have pretty much the private sector running almost entirely everything in the city.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: ALEC is a corporate dating service for lonely legislators and corporate special interests that eventually the relationship culminates with some special interest legislation and hopefully that lives happily ever after as the ALEC model. Unfortunately what’s excluded from that equation is the public.
BILL MOYERS: Democrat Mark Pocan, now a member of the U.S. Congress, was until recently a Wisconsin State Representative. He is one of ALEC’s loudest critics.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: This is part of a national conservative movement […] that's involved in all 50 states, that introduces the same cookie cutter legislation state by state on behalf of their corporate paid members.
BILL MOYERS: By one count, nearly a third of Wisconsin’s lawmakers are ALEC members.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: When you look around especially on the Republican side of the aisle, a lot of members of ALEC. Front row: ALEC. When you start going down to the chair of finance and some of the other members are all ALEC members, in fact the ALEC co-chair for the state – row by row you can point out people who have been members of ALEC over the years. There's two main categories they have. One is how to reduce the size of government. And the other half of it is this model legislation that's in the corporate good. In other words, there's a profit-driven legislation. How can you open up a new market? How can you privatize something that can open up a market for a company? And between those two divisions you are kind of getting to the same end goal, which is really kind of ultimate privatization of everything.
BILL MOYERS: Mark Pocan is something of an expert on ALEC – in fact, to learn as much about it as he could, he became a member.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: What I realized is if you join ALEC for a mere hundred dollars as a legislator you have the full access like any corporate member.
BILL MOYERS: Those corporate members pay up to 25 thousand dollars for that privilege. For a first-hand look at how corporations interact with ALEC legislators, Pocan took himself to an ALEC conference.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN’S VIDEO BLOG: Hi, I’m state representative Mark Pocan and welcome to my video blog. I’m outside the Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans at the ALEC convention, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: That was where you watch the interaction of a room full of lobbyists— you know, free drinks, free cigars, wining, dining, many people just came from a dinner that was sponsored by some special interests, coming to a party that’s sponsored by special interests, so they can continue to talk about special interests.
LISA GRAVES: This is from the New Orleans convention. This includes a number of seminars that they held for legislators, including one called “Warming up to Climate Change: The Many Benefits of Increased Atmospheric CO2.”
BILL MOYERS: That 2011 ALEC conference, lo and behold, was sponsored by BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell, among others. Another event featured guns.
LISA GRAVES: This is the NRA-sponsored shooting event. For legislators and for lobbyists. Free.
BILL MOYERS: There was even one offering free cigars.
LISA GRAVES: Sponsored by Reynolds American, which is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world, and the Cigar Association of America.
BILL MOYERS: Despite it all, ALEC says it’s not engaged in a lobbying effort. In fact, ALEC operates not as a lobby group, but as a nonprofit… a charity. In its filing with the IRS, ALEC says its mission is “education.” Which means it pays no taxes, and its corporate members get a tax write-off. Its legislators get a lot too.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: In Wisconsin, I can't take anything of value from a lobbyist. I can't take a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. At ALEC, it's just the opposite. You know, you get there and you're being wined and dined by corporate interests, I can go down there, and be wined and dined for days in order to hear about their special legislation. I mean, the head of Shell Oil flew in on his private jet to come to this conference. The head of one the largest utility companies in the country was there on a panel. Utility company in 13 states – and here he is presenting to legislators. I mean, they clearly brought in some of the biggest corporate names in “special interestdom” and had that meeting with legislators because a lot of business transpires at these events.
BILL MOYERS: The most important business takes place behind closed doors. Researcher Nick Surgey, of the watchdog group Common Cause, would delve deep into internal ALEC documents to figure out what goes on inside ALEC’S Task Forces. There are currently eight of them, with a corporate take on every important issue in American life, from health and safety to the environment and taxation.
NICK SURGEY: They have corporate members and legislators who are members of these Task Forces. Corporations can pay to be members of a Task Force or multiple Task Forces depending on what interests they have and what legislation they want to promote.
BILL MOYERS: Surgey, who now works for the Center for Media and Democracy, has in some cases been able to determine which corporations sit on which task forces, producing which model bills.
NICK SURGEY: For example, there is a civil justice task force that mainly concerns access to the courts.
BILL MOYERS: In 2011, that Task Force included lobbyists from companies that could face serious legal penalties if their products are found to harm, or to kill. They included tobacco giant Altria and drug makers Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. There’s another Task Force with a bill designed to exempt energy companies from disclosing some of the chemicals they inject underground. That Task Force has included companies that manufacture or inject plenty of those chemicals: Koch Industries, Chevron, BP, and the company that sponsored the bill at ALEC, ExxonMobil. Five states have introduced or passed versions of that ALEC bill. ALEC says “elected legislators,” not corporations, “fully control the model legislation process.” But Nick Surgey read ALEC’s operating procedures and found a different story.
NICK SURGEY: If the corporations do not vote for a model bill, it does not become an ALEC model. We've seen an example in the Telecommunications Task Force, where the legislators voted 17 to 1 to approve a telecoms bill, they – clearly the will of the legislators was for it to become an ALEC model. However the corporations voted and tied 8-8, which meant that it was killed, it didn't become an ALEC model.
LISA GRAVES: And I can understand why a corporate lobbyist wants to have an equal say to an elected representative. Who wouldn't? But the fact is that I have been a lobbyist before. It has never been the case that any – any legislator has said to me, "Here's the plan. You get an equal say to me and if you don't, if you don't agree, the bill doesn't go forward."
JERRY WATSON: There is a model bill for you to review if you might be interested in introducing such a measure.
BILL MOYERS: This is Jerry Watson, Senior Legal Counsel for the American Bail Coalition, speaking at an ALEC meeting in 2007.
JERRY WATSON: Now if you don't like the precise language of these suggested documents, can they be tweaked by your legislative counsel? Well absolutely. And will we work with them on that and work with you and your staff on that? Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: This video provides a rare look at a private sector representative pitching a bill to ALEC’s legislative members.
JERRY WATSON: But I’m not so crazy so as not to know that you've already figured out that if I can talk you into doing this bill, my clients are going to make some money on the bond premiums. But if we can help you save crime victims in your legislative district and generate positive revenue for your state, and help solve your prison-overcrowding problem, you don't mind me making a dollar.
BOB EDGAR: These guys who are paying to be part of this organization, are not there just to be nice, they are there to get something out of it.
BILL MOYERS: The late Bob Edgar was the president of Common Cause until early this year. We interviewed him in 2012.
BOB EDGAR: Normally lobbyists have to register, normally corporations have to disclose their lobbying activity. But here under the guise of a nonprofit, these corporate lawyers and corporate officials are sitting side by side with mostly conservative state legislators. They’re shaping these bills.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: When I went down to New Orleans, to the ALEC convention last August, there was a proposal to provide special needs scholarships. And lo and behold, all of the sudden I come back to Wisconsin and what gets introduced? Get ready, I know you’re going to have a shocked look on your face: a bill to do just that.
BILL MOYERS: That special needs bill was sponsored by 26 ALEC members in the Wisconsin legislature. But the real sponsor was ALEC. Mark Pocan knew because the bill bore a striking resemblance to ALEC’S model. Have a look.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: If the average person knew that a bill like this came from some group like ALEC, you'll look at the bill very differently and you might look at that legislator a little differently about why they introduced it.
FORMER WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN ON LEGISLATURE FLOOR: This is not about education, this is not about helping kids with special needs, this is about privatization, this is about corporate profits, and this is about dismantling public education.
BILL MOYERS: The bill passed in the Wisconsin House but failed to make it through the Senate. However, in its 2012 “Education Report Card,” ALEC boasted that similar bills have become law in Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Ohio. And it’s not just special needs education: ALEC’s education agenda includes online schooling as well.
JULIE UNDERWOOD: There's a model ALEC bill called the “Virtual Public Schools Act,” which actually creates cyber academies…
MAN FROM ‘CONNECTIONS ACADEMY’ COMMERCIAL: When kids enroll in Connections Academy…
JULIE UNDERWOOD …Where children receive all of their instruction in front of a computer. They don't go to school, they don't interact with adults, they don't interact with other children. All of their instruction is received online.
TENNESSEE REPUB. SEN. DOLORES GRESHAM: Thank you Mr. Speaker. House Bill 1030 has to do with the establishment of virtual public schools.
BILL MOYERS: In 2011, an online schooling bill based on the ALEC model turned up in another state where ALEC has a powerful influence: Tennessee. It was introduced in both the State Senate and House by ALEC members. Like the special needs bill in Wisconsin, this one too had its opponents.
TENNESSEE DEM. REP. MIKE STEWART: We have never opened up our state to virtual schools broadly, and that’s why we have an army of lobbyists outside, many of you may have talked to them, trying right now to pass this virtual schools act. And the concern I have is that whether you like them or don’t like them, the fact is that virtual schools involve a dramatic transfer of sizable amounts of money to private sector for-profit companies.
BILL MOYERS: And there was something else that Julie Underwood found dramatic about ALEC’S model online education bill. In 2004, ALEC had credited two of the nation’s largest for-profit, online education corporations, Connections Academy and K-12 Inc., with helping to craft the “Virtual Schools Act.”
JULIE UNDERWOOD: You can actually follow the line where you see a corporate interest and this model piece of legislation that then was proposed pretty much in whole in Tennessee.
BILL MOYERS: K-12 then lobbied for the bill – and began to benefit almost immediately after it was passed in Tennessee.
JULIE UNDERWOOD: Lo and behold they get a no-bid contract to provide these services in Tennessee. And so it's not even a leap of faith or imagination. You can see the steps where you see the corporations creating a piece of model legislation, lobbying for it, being successful, and then having that accrue to their bottom line. What's the purpose of privatizing education in the United States? Because there are some things in the United States like courts, legislatures, public education, that really need to remain public. I mean that's the heart of what we are as a democracy, and what ALEC seems to be doing is taking public education and legislation and privatizing them.
LORI ROMAN: Individual liberty, free enterprise, limited government: whether you are a state legislator …
BILL MOYERS: The philosophy of privatization goes way back. It came to ALEC by way of conservative economist Milton Friedman.
LORI ROMAN: Every decision you have made on one of these issues has been influenced by Dr. Friedman's work, whether at that very moment you were realizing it or not. And it is my greatest honor to introduce you to Dr. Milton Friedman.
DR. MILTON FRIEDMAN: The real problem is how do we get to a system in which parents control the education of their children. Of course the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.
BILL MOYERS: But ALEC was spawned, in 1973, in part as the brainchild of a very different conservative icon.
PAUL WEYRICH: We are talking about Christianizing America.
BILL MOYERS: The noted activist of the religious right: Paul Weyrich.
PAUL WEYRICH: We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context.
CHIP BERLET: Paul Weyrich was the key strategist of the New Right and the right-wing backlash that began really strongly with the election of Ronald Reagan as president.
BILL MOYERS: Archivist Chip Berlet studies the right-wing movement.
CHIP BERLET: He was a Christian conservative who was also a political strategist and really wanted to roll back the role of government in the society and cut back taxes, cut back social security, cut back all of the social welfare programs that the Roosevelt administration had established.
PAUL WEYRICH: They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by…
BILL MOYERS: Weyrich recognized that too much democracy could endanger his movement.
PAUL WEYRICH: As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
BILL MOYERS: Another of his contributions was the recognition that the movement would never succeed if it only focused on Washington.
JOEL ROGERS: He was not interested in the next cycle. He was not, certainly not interested in the next candidate, which is what the left or the liberals have always been obsessed by. You know, “Let’s just get Obama in or let’s do this or that and we’ll be saved.” No, it was always about building an infrastructure, building a real machine, especially at the state and local level.
PAUL WEYRICH: We have been far too presidentially focused, and far less focused on state and local conservatism, which is where it ought to begin.
CHIP BERLET: People say: “Well how do you know what they think?” It’s because they tell you!
BILL MOYERS: Berlet has collected ALEC documents going back several decades. Among them is a 1979 ALEC fundraising letter showing how quickly ALEC moved into the realm of practical politics. Its author: Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
CHIP BERLET: “I'm totally convinced that if you and I are to regain control of our schools our homes our businesses and our government it must be through a concerted effort on the state and local level, that is why I joined the American Legislative Exchange Council.”
As time goes on, ALEC draws more and more interest from corporate funders who begin to see it as a way to get their pet projects brought down to the state level. And so somewhere between around 1974 and 1980 you see ALEC transform into a very powerful organization with scores of corporations involved in it, putting out sample state policy legislation packets on many different issues. This is a list and it says some of our corporation and foundation donors, it's tiny type and it fills a lot of the page: the All State Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Exxon, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, Gulf Oil, Iowa Power and Light. It's quite a list.
BILL MOYERS: Anti-government sentiment, Christian activist certainty, power both political and corporate… it was a potent mix that helped propel ALEC’S success. An early ‘80s annual report, for example, boasted that: “literally every state has been influenced by the work of ALEC … scores of ALEC’s model bills have been enacted into law throughout the country.”
FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN : The critical questions of our day will be decided by state legislators, how our children are educated, how we’re protected from crime. […] ALEC has forged a unique partnership between state legislators and leaders from the corporate and business community.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH : I value our partnership, our dynamic partnership, and look forward to working with you in the years ahead.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC’S 1995 report got specific: 978 bills introduced. 231 passed. Over half the states passed ALEC laws that would lengthen prison sentences. Meanwhile, bills to foster the rise of for-profit prisons were introduced in seven states. Eight states enacted bills creating medical savings accounts, which would shift costs from insurance companies to policy holders. So-called “Civil Justice” bills – which would limit the amount corporations pay if their products kill or injure someone, were “introduced or enacted more than 20 times.” ALEC’s head at the time boasted, “with our success rate at more than 20 percent, I would say that ALEC is a good investment. Nowhere else can you get a return that high." And as ALEC grew more influential, it became a home not just for corporations and conservative politicians, but for their fellow travelers, the billionaire bankrollers of the American right.
DAVID KOCH: Five years ago, my brother Charles and I provided the funds to start the Americans for Prosperity. And it’s beyond my wildest dreams how AFP has grown into this enormous organization.
JOHN NICHOLS: The Koch brothers: David and Charles Koch, two of the wealthiest men in America, two of the wealthiest men in the world, are incredibly active political players. They like to form organizations and help them to grow and to put ideas into the mix as the great funders of the structures of conservative and, frankly, pro-corporate politics. And they were very early funders of and active players with ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: David and Charles Koch, the billionaire businessmen behind a vast industrial empire, are also political activists with an agenda. Their companies and foundations have been ALEC members and funders for years.
JOHN NICHOLS: The Koch brothers get that if you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don't just give money to presidential campaigns. You don't just give money to congressional campaign committees. The smart ones, the smart players, put their money in the states, because it's state government that funds education, social services. And it taxes. And so if you want to play big-time politics, you play in 50 state capitols. And so through ALEC, you can change the whole country without ever going to Washington, without ever having to go through a congressional hearing, without ever having to lobby on Capitol Hill, without ever having to talk to a president.
BILL MOYERS: If anyone demonstrates the success of the Koch brothers and ALEC at the state level, it’s Scott Walker. Wisconsin’s governor is almost a household name today. The whole nation watched a grateful walker survive a bitter recall election fight in June of 2012.
WISCONSIN GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: I want to thank God for his abundant grace.
BILL MOYERS: But before he hit the national scene, Walker spent close to a decade in the Wisconsin Legislature – where he became a member of ALEC.
JOHN NICHOLS: And in 2010 he ran not presenting himself as an ALEC alumni or as an ally of big corporations or big business people outside the state. He ran a very down-home campaign.
WISCONSIN GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER [Campaign Ad]: This is my lunch. I pack a brown bag each day so I can save some money to spend on, you know, the more important things in life, like sending my kids to college.
BILL MOYERS: John Nichols says that despite the folksy image, in the years leading up to Walker’s 2010 campaign, he had become a master political fundraiser.
JOHN NICHOLS: And he began to really forge incredibly close ties with a lot of corporate interests that he had first been introduced to in ALEC, individuals and groups like the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers were among the two or three largest contributors to Scott Walker's campaign for governor of Wisconsin.
WOMAN AT GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER’S SWEARING-IN CEREMONY: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me…
BILL MOYERS: The new governor moved quickly with a raft of ALEC-inspired bills. They included a law that made it easier to carry concealed weapons. There was a resolution opposing the mandated purchase of health insurance. And of course there was a law limiting corporate liability. The Wisconsin Legislature passed a so-called tort reform measure that included parts of eight different ALEC models. ALEC was elated, praising Walker and the legislature in a press release for their – quote – “immediate attention to reforming the state’s legal system.” But Scott Walker was also shooting for another big ALEC prize.
WISCONSIN GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: Now some have questioned why we have to reform collective bargaining.
BILL MOYERS: Taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights: that had long been an ALEC goal. A candid video caught him talking about it with one of his financial backers, a billionaire businesswoman, Diane Hendricks.
WISCONSIN GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: We’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions. ‘Cause you just divide and conquer.
BILL MOYERS: Despite an extraordinary public outcry, and after a brief but intense political struggle, Walker’s anti-collective bargaining measures became state law.
JOHN NICHOLS: It was ALEC's ideas, ALEC's values, that permeated the bill and un-did almost 50 years, more than 50 years, of collective bargaining law in Wisconsin.
BILL MOYERS: But again, remember this isn’t just about one state. It’s about every state. Take Arizona: practically an ALEC subsidiary. One report last year found that 49 of Arizona’s 90 legislators were members. And two-thirds of the Republican leadership were on ALEC Task Forces. The governor, Jan Brewer, was an ALEC member too.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: All of us here are very familiar with ALEC and the influence that ALEC has with many of the members here.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC’s domination of Arizona proved too much for State Representative Steve Farley.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: I just want to emphasize: it’s fine for corporations to be involved in the process. Corporations have the right to present their arguments, but they don’t have the right to do it secretly. They don’t have the right to lobby people and not register as lobbyists. They don’t have the right to take people away on trips, convince them of it, send them back here, and then nobody’s seen what’s really gone on and how that legislator’s gotten that idea and where is it coming from.
BILL MOYERS: Last year, Farley introduced a bill to force legislators to disclose their ALEC ties – just as the law already requires them to do with any lobbyist.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: All I’m asking in the ALEC Accountability Act is to make sure that all of those expenses are reported as if they are lobbying expenses and all those gifts that legislators received are reported as if they’re receiving the gifts from lobbyists, so the public can find out and make up their own minds about who is influencing what.
BILL MOYERS: Farley’s bill went nowhere. For most of its existence, ALEC stayed out of the national news. That changed in March 2012, when a gunshot sounded in the Florida night.
RACHEL MADDOW: Trayvon Martin, unarmed but for a bag of candy and iced tea that he was carrying…
BILL MOYERS: You’ll recall that the shooter in Trayvon Martin’s death was protected at first by Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law. “Stand Your Ground” was the work of the National Rifle Association. There’s its lobbyist standing right beside Governor Jeb Bush when he signed it into law in 2005. Although ALEC didn’t originate the Florida law, it seized on it for the “Stand Your Ground” model it would circulate in other states. Twenty-four of them have passed a version of it.
RASHAD ROBINSON: How did this law not only get in place in Florida, but around the country? And all the fingers kept pointing back to ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: When civil rights and grassroots groups learned about ALEC’s connection to Stand Your Ground laws, they were outraged.
RASHAD ROBINSON: ALEC doesn’t do its work alone, they do it with some of the biggest corporate brands in America.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Tell us what you know about what the impact has been of the Trayvon Martin case in terms of funding this organization which has been pushing these “Stand Your Ground” laws.
LISA GRAVES: This is a group that has lost funders in the last few weeks as people have learned about ALEC’s role in promoting “Stand Your Ground” laws.
BILL MOYERS: Before long, corporations were pulling out of ALEC, including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Mars, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson. Caught in the glare of the national spotlight, ALEC tried to change the subject.
KAITLYN BUSS: You know, I think the entire debate needs to be reframed, and really what ALEC is, is a bipartisan association of state legislators. We have, you know, legislators of all political stripes coming together to talk about the most critical issues facing the states […] and trying to come up with the best solutions to face some of the problems that we’re having.
FOX NEWS ANCHOR MEGYN KELLY: Alright, so your point is it’s not a partisan organization.
BILL MOYERS: But the floodgates had opened. At least 40 corporations have fled ALEC, including many additional big names. Still, many companies have stayed in, and ALEC continues to strengthen ties to conservative groups. In 2012, it held a high-level, closed-door meeting with congressional conservatives in Washington to better coordinate policy goals.
JOHN NICHOLS: Here’s the interesting thing. This story isn't done. This is an ongoing fight in America, and it really gets us to a question of: how do you counter so much organized power, organized money, in our politics?
BILL MOYERS: Last year, Common Cause filed a complaint about ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service.
BOB EDGAR: We think there is tax fraud involved.
BILL MOYERS: The group is challenging ALEC’s tax-free status, claiming that ALEC “is a corporate lobbying group masquerading as a public charity.” And this year, Arizona legislator Steve Farley has re-introduced his ALEC Accountability Act, in the State Senate this time. Meanwhile, researchers continue to pore over ALEC’s documents, connecting the dots between its corporate patrons and compliant legislators.
MARY BOTTARI: State by state by state, citizens have to decide. Do they want legislators to go to fancy resorts and sit behind closed doors with lobbyists and write their bills and then bring them back and introduce them without exposing their ALEC roots, or do they want to do want to do something about that?
DOUG CLOPP: As more and more people become aware of the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council, they are becoming more aware that this corporate agenda does not match the values of the American People.
BILL MOYERS: Citizens are catching on. But ALEC is still everywhere. Watch for it: coming soon to a statehouse near you.
And sure enough, since that report last year, ALEC has kept on coming. Now, though, the word is out and ALEC can no longer hide in the shadows.
When its lawmakers and lobbyists got together last month in Oklahoma City to draft some more model bills, they were met by hundreds of protesters.
PROTESTORS: ALEC is not OK! ALEC is not OK!
BILL MOYERS: Firefighters, teachers, environmentalists, teamsters, religious leaders, all with one message:
PROTESTORS: ALEC is not OK! ALEC is not OK! ALEC is not OK!
BILL MOYERS: Let me tell you a little more about what ALEC has been up to. In the interest of a healthy environment, 29 states have laws requiring utilities to provide a portion of their electricity from renewable energy sources. The idea, of course, is to cut back on the use of fossil fuels, which, as everyone knows, contribute to global warming.
Yet even as headlines about climate chaos confront us every day, ALEC is doing its damnedest to undermine the use of clean, renewable energy.
Take a look at this. It’s called the “Electricity Freedom Act” – one of ALEC’s ‘model’ bills. Sounds great – who doesn’t like freedom? But the bill amounts to an effort by the fossil fuel industry to curtail the freedom of states to set Renewable Energy Standards, by repealing those state laws.
In the last two years, 21 of the 29 states with Renewable Energy Standards have seen bills proposed that would weaken or repeal them, over half of them pushed by lawmakers with confirmed ALEC ties. In two states – Ohio and New Hampshire – such bills have already become law.
It will hardly surprise you that ALEC gets millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, or that companies that have served on the ALEC task force that produced the “Electricity Freedom Act” include representatives of – hold your breath – ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Koch Industries.
Now ALEC doesn’t like all this to be publicized. It doesn’t like exposure to sunshine at all. In fact, they’ve recently begun including fine print on their materials saying they believe the documents are, quote, “… not subject to disclosure under any state Freedom of Information or Public Records Act.”
Got it? Take another look: “…not subject to disclosure under any state Freedom of Information or Public Records Act.”
So, when your elected legislators are meeting with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors, ALEC thinks you – the public, the voter – have no right to know what they have done or even talked about.
That’s not all. ALEC thinks that even the name “ALEC” has gotten far too much attention. So it’s come up with a new strategy, described recently by its chief flack in a memo to his members.
Quote: “You May Have Noticed We are Limiting the Use of the Acronym ‘ALEC’… Over the last year, the word ‘ALEC’ has been used to conjure up images of a distant, mysterious, Washington alphabet organization of unknown intentions…”
So, “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.”
Ah yes, but better and more efficient government for whom? ALEC’s “Private Enterprise Advisory Council” still contains a who’s who of elite corporate power; its health care agenda still calls for privatizing Medicare; its economic agenda for tax cuts for the rich; and its education agenda for more public money going to private schools.
And there’s always the spirit of Paul Weyrich…
PAUL WEYRICH I don’t want everybody to vote…
BILL MOYERS: Who as you will remember wanted less voter turnout, not more. That spirit suffused ALEC’s sponsorship last year of so-called “Voter Reform” measures, which would have made it harder for young, elderly, and low-income Americans to vote.
And for sheer audacity in the capture of government, you can’t beat what happened under the capitol dome in South Dakota earlier this year: ALEC allies decided the cost of sending some state legislators to wine and dine with those corporate lawyers and lobbyists should be paid by taxpayers. But that wasn’t enough. Those same South Dakota taxpayers now have to pay ALEC dues for legislators who are members.
It’s like tipping the thief for picking your pocket.
But give them credit where credit’s due: the political, religious and corporate right conceived a brilliant strategy for advancing their agenda by going to the states. Brilliant, but disingenuous. They choose to talk about “free markets” when in fact their member corporations prefer to arrange the markets to their advantage. They boast that “government closest to the people” is, quote, “fundamentally, more effective, more just, and a better guarantor of freedom than the distant, bloated federal government in Washington, D.C."
But what is “just” about laws written to benefit powerful organized interests at the expense of everyone else? What is just about going to great lengths to make sure “the people” don’t know who is writing those laws? If getting closer to “the people” is really your goal, it’s curious behavior to cover your tracks, keep your sessions closed to the press, and do most of the “people's work” in secret.
No, when all is said and done, the pro-capitalist magazine “Businessweek” got it right: quote, “part of ALEC’s mission is to present industry-backed legislation as grass-roots work.”
But their cover’s been blown…
PROTESTORS: ALEC’s got to go! Hey, hey! Ho, ho!
BILL MOYERS: The protests are growing, and the story’s not going away. We'll be reporting on it in the months ahead.
PROTESTORS: ALEC’s got to go!
BILL MOYERS: Coming up on Moyers & Company: “A Place at the Table.”
RAJ PATEL: The reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food, it’s because of poverty.
BILL SHORE: One out of every two kids in The United States at some point in their childhood will be on food assistance.
LESLIE NICHOLS: I was one of those kids that was hungry. It messes with you.
JAMES MCGOVERN: The average food stamp benefit was $3 a day. There are people who are living on that and you really can’t.
MARION NESTLE: If you have a limited amount of money to spend you’re going to spend it on the cheapest calories you can get and that’s processed foods.
BARBIE IZQUIERDO: My dream is to go to college but I can’t tell my kids, “I’ll make sure you guys eat in two years.” I’m struggling to even feed my kids every day.
Put that in there. Okay, that was a bad idea.
JANET POPPENDIECK: As many as 50 million Americans rely on charitable food programs.
ADAM APPELHANZ: I haven’t received a pay raise in four years and what I used to spend on a month in groceries now gets me about two weeks.
PASTOR BOB WILSON: It’s amazing how the need has increased.
JEFF BRIDGES: Charity is a great thing, but it’s not the way to end hunger.
JAMES MCGOVERN: We’re weakening our nation.
ROSIE: I don’t really know what to do.
I struggle a lot and most of the time it’s because my stomach is really hurting. My teacher tells me to get focused and she told me to write focus on my little sticker and every time I look at it and I’m like oh I’m supposed to be focusing. I start yawning and then I zone out and I’m just looking at the teacher and I look at her and all I think about is food. So I have these little visions in my eyes. Sometimes when I look at her I vision her as a banana so she goes like a banana and everybody in the class is like apples or oranges and then I’m like oh great.
KRISTI JACOBSON: What struck me so much about Rosie is that her story sort of embodied everything about this issue which is that while she's experiencing this hunger and food insecurity it's affecting her self-esteem, it's affecting her ability to learn, which is very upsetting. But at the same time she has this incredible spirit which gives you this, you know, some feeling of hope and inspiration. So she's just an incredible young girl.
MARIANA CHILTON: You can’t look at Rosie and see oh, she's hungry. So where do you see it? You see it in school performance, their ability to get along with others, their ability to pay attention for children of school age--
KRISTI JACOBSON: Attendance.
MARIANA CHILTON: --and attendance. If we could think about poverty during childhood as a type of a disease, if we could pay as much attention to poverty for children as we pay attention to infectious disease we might be able to do something in this country.
BILL MOYERS: And Baldemar Velasquez, the people’s organizer.
BALDEMAR VELASQUEZ: "Son, I got to ask you a question." I say, "Yeah, go head." He says, "Well, you're the only person I've ever had here as a volunteer that hasn't complained about the rats. Why is that?" So I told him my rat story, that I grew up with the rats.
The couch that in the living room was my bed and my brother's bed. He slept on one end. And I slept on the other end. And that couch was pushed up against a window overlooking the front porch. And there was a crack underneath the pane. And that's where the rats would come in at night.
So at night, you'd hear the scratching along the back of that couch. And we knew there was a rat going to get up on the top up there. And we knew that the rat had to jump on the seat where we sleeping before he got on the floor. So when we'd hear the scratching on the back of that couch, we'd kick each other and pull the blanket taut. And, to make kind of like a trampoline for the rat.
And the rat would jump down on the blanket. And when we'd hear that, we'd go with our fists underneath, boom, like that, to see how far we could make the rat fly. And that was our game, to see how far we could make the rat fly.
But the man says, he looked kind of stunned. And he said, "Good Lord, son, why aren't you doing something for your own people?" And that's what provoked the thought. I said, "I need to go back and start organizing the migrant workers and try to follow the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement to speak for people and organize them so they can speak for themselves."
BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile at BillMoyers.com we’ll show you how to keep track of ALEC and you’ll also find a map that marks the state legislators that are ALEC members. We’ve been updating the map since we first launched it, but we want your help filling in the blanks by calling your local representatives and asking if they belong.
Become a citizen journalist on BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and see you here, next time.