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Our Step-By-Step Guide to Understanding ALEC’s Influence on Your State Laws

Which “model” legislation from an industry-friendly nonprofit has made it to your statehouse? Find out for yourself.

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For decades, a discreet nonprofit has brought together state legislators and corporate representatives to produce business-friendly “model” legislation. These “model” bills form the basis of hundreds of pieces of legislation each year, and they often end up as laws. As media scrutiny of the nonprofit—the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—has grown, we’ve built both a guide and a searchable database so you can see for yourself how ALEC’s model bills make their way to statehouses.

Following the steps we lay out may reveal some interesting connections. Last month, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political columnist Daniel Bice looked into an obscure ALEC-approved bill to tax chewing tobacco by weight rather than price. The ALEC model legislation calls this a “fairness” issue, noting that “taxes that create a consumer preference within a product category impede free market commerce.” It does not note that Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and a member of ALEC’s private enterprise board, sells pricier “premium” brands of chewing tobacco and stands to benefit from the tax change.

ALEC and its members favor “federalism and conservative public policy solutions,” and ALEC representatives tell reporters that its mission is fundamentally “educational.” ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber told the Los Angeles Times, “Legislators should hear from those the government intends to regulate.”

Founded in the mid-1970s, ALEC has no real counterpart on the left. Its closest equivalent, the Progressive States Network, was founded in 2005, has about a quarter of ALEC’s funding and produces only a small amount of model legislation.

Thanks to a critical mass of resources now available on the Internet, you, too, can trace which of ALEC’s model bills made it to statehouses, which legislators sponsored them and which industries may have had an interest in the success of the bill.

You can find 800 of ALEC’s model bills on the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” site. Using data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, you can also find out how much ALEC-affiliated companies and associations have donated to ALEC-affiliated state legislators, going back to the 1990 election cycle. We’ve made that process even easier—we used the institute’s data to build a more easily searchable contributions database.

To navigate among these different sites, we’ve put together a detailed, step-by-step guide to help journalists, bloggers and citizens trace the influence of ALEC’s model legislation on state law.

If you’re confused, or if questions come up as you’re researching, we’ll be answering questions via Twitter (@ProPublica) as well as responding to questions in the comment thread.

If you write stories about your findings, let us know so we can feature them in a special section of #MuckReads and share them via @ProPublica.

Please use the comments section below to compare notes or to reveal anything interesting you’ve found. Make sure to include any URLs that illustrate what you’ve found. Our ALEC contributions database makes that part easy—there’s a box on the side of every page with a “permalink” you can include in your comment or story.

Step one: Focus on a particular legislator or issue

To get started, you can search our ALEC Contributors database by state or name to find out which of your state legislators are affiliated with ALEC. Then you can look at their official websites, which typically include lists of the legislation they’ve sponsored. (This might appear under a heading like “Accomplishments.”)

If you’re interested in a particular issue, you can browse ALEC’s website, where their model bills are organized by topic.

Once you’ve identified a model bill related to a particular issue, you can start with a simple Google search of the title of the bill. Sometimes that will bring up news articles or press releases about the states where the bill has been introduced.

If that doesn’t work, another tactic is to find out which ALEC legislators brought that bill back to their statehouses to turn into law. ALEC’s bills are discussed, written and approved by “task forces” of particular legislators and private sector representatives. So, to find out which state legislators may have sponsored legislation on this topic, it’s helpful to first check which legislators belong to the task force that developed the “model bill.”

Confused? Here’s an example. Under “Civil Justice” on the ALEC site, there are three bills related to limiting asbestos exposure claims. To find out which state legislators may have sponsored a bill on this topic, you should first check see which legislators are members of ALEC’s “Civil Justice” task force. ALEC’s site lists at least one: Ohio State Sen. Bill Seitz. But the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” site has a bigger list of task force affiliates, and the “Civil Justice” section of the list includes nine state legislators, including Kansas Rep. Lance Kinzer, who listed his ALEC affiliation in a press release for his 2010 re-election bid.

Posted on Kinzer’s website are detailed annual newsletters with his “legislative highlights.” Search for the term “asbestos” in each of these newsletters, and a relevant bill pops up: 2006, SB 512, the Silica and Asbestos Claims Act.

Step two: Compare the text of sponsored legislation with the text of ALEC’s model bills

Once you’ve found a potential connection between an ALEC model bill and state legislation, it’s time to do a full-text comparison.

You can find the full text of roughly 800 ALEC model bills obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy on the ALEC Exposed website. The easiest way to find the bill you want is to do a keyword search. When browsing the bills, you should note that they are organized by subject but in a different way than the bills on the ALEC site, so you may have to click around to find a particular bill. Another tip: Bypass the “Click here for a zip file of bills” option for each topic and instead choose “For more details click here.” On each topic page, there’s a link to the “full list of individual bills” for each section, which will bring you to a long list of ALEC’s model bills, all available in PDF.

To continue our previous example, search the ALEC Exposed site for “silica” or browse the “Tort Reform and Injured Americans” section until you find the relevant bills. A keyword search brings up the PDF of the “Asbestos and Silica Claims Act Revealed,” which seems a likely match for Kansas’ “SB 512, the Silica and Asbestos Claims Act.”

Next, you need the full text of the actual state legislation. To find this, you can usually go to the state legislature’s web page, which should give you the option to search or browse through bills under consideration in the state’s House or Senate, as well as search for approved statutes. (If you need a refresher on how a bill becomes law, some states provide that, too.)

So, in the asbestos example, if you click on the “Bills and Laws” tab on the Kansas Legislature home page, go to “Statutes” and do a full-text search for “silica,” you’ll find the Silica and Asbestos Claims Act. You have to click through several pages to read the whole text, but even a quick scan shows that many phrases in the Kansas statute are identical to the ALEC model. (You can also download software like Beyond Compare that will do an automatic text comparison for you.)

Bingo—you have identified a state law based on an ALEC model bill.

Step three: Find out who benefits from the bill’s passage

Every bill that’s introduced is supposed to benefit somebody, but the real beneficiaries aren’t always obvious.

One of the most powerful ways to find out who has an interest in the legislation is to look at the records of the discussion and passage of the bill. State legislatures’ websites often provide this information, including minutes of the hearings at which specific bills were discussed, which typically include lists of who came forward to speak for and against the bill.

For instance, doing a site search for “SB 512” on the Kansas Legislature’s page brings up the minutes for the Senate Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee on Feb. 14, 15, 21 and 22, 2006; and the House Insurance Committee’s meetings on March 14 and 21, 2006. These minutes contain a rich trove of information and reveal that insurance companies, business associations and contractors stood to benefit from the bill, while representatives from trial lawyer associations spoke against it.

You can also see which corporations were involved in discussions about model legislation. ALEC runs conferences, bringing together politicians and corporate representatives. Attendees meet in topic-specific groups such as “Civil Justice,” and you can find partial task force membership information on the ALEC Exposed site.

While you’re looking for potential beneficiaries, you might also want to glance at campaign donations through our ALEC database, as well as the National Institute for Money in State Politics’ state-by-state database of campaign contributions. Which companies and individuals contributed to the legislators who supported the bill?

For instance, Lance Kinzer’s page in our ALEC Donor database includes $1,000 in campaign contributions from Kansas-based Koch Industries in 2006, the year the asbestos legislation was introduced. At that time, Koch had recently acquired a company with 57,400 asbestos litigation claims against it. Koch has also lobbied about asbestos at the national level. Kansas politicians don’t exactly rake in the money: Kinzer raised about $43,000 in 2006, and Koch’s $1,000 made it one of his biggest contributors. Of course, this is also a relatively modest contribution from a conservative-owned Kansas corporation to a conservative Kansas politician.

When we called and emailed Kinzer to ask about the legislation, he wrote back: “The real expert on this is former Representative Eric Carter.” (Carter was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment.)

“I honestly remember virtually nothing about this issue from 5 years ago,” Kinzer added in a subsequent email message. He did not respond to further questions.

Step four and beyond: Look at the bigger picture

It’s perfectly appropriate—in fact, it’s the right thing to do—to call lawmakers or companies for more information. Do your homework, and have your facts ready. Ask them things like: How did you come to support this particular legislation at this particular time? What factors influenced your decision? What role did ALEC’s model legislation play? Their answers may not be illuminating—they may, in fact, not remember much at all—but it’s important to go directly to the source.

If you’re interested in tracing ALEC’s influence through a particular piece of legislation, you shouldn’t end your investigation with one state. What makes ALEC a powerful policy clearinghouse is that its model legislation is often introduced in several states at once. A quick Google search for the different titles of the act you’ve been following should be enough to point you to more states that may have considered or enacted similar legislation. From there, you can repeat the same steps to understand more about the local and national players who had an interest in the bill.

File this one under: THINGS WE KVETCH ABOUT WHEN PEOPLE OTHER THAN GEORGE SOROS DOES IT.

George McHugh

Aug. 1, 2011, 2:28 p.m.

SOROS MAY BE A BILLIONAIRE BUT HE’S NOT AS RICH AS THE kOCH BROTHERS

Check out the Nation mag Aug 1/8 issue for more on ALEC

Let’s open up the books on ProPublica!  LOL

HollywoodBoy, ProPublica discloses, on this site, all of its donors, its detailed financials, and the salaries of all of its highest paid employees.

Want to follow the money on us?  A list of ProPublica’s supporters—including a handy link to our most recent tax filings—is available here: http://www.propublica.org/about/supporters/

The 990 form includes a list of major donors and exactly how much they gave: http://s3.amazonaws.com/propublica/assets/about/propublica_990_2010.pdf

Thanks so much! This handy guide will really help me focus my efforts here in NC.  The searchable database offered a couple light bulb moments, too (CFL light bulb, of course ; )

Jude, if you end up publishing a story on your findings, please let me know: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). We’ll be sharing other #ALEC reporting through our Twitter feed and #MuckReads feature.

37 members from Wisconsin….Hum-m-m-m-m…
Can you say which state shut down their government, wants to sell their public utilities to an out of state entity, thinks state employees should not have collective bargining power???

I’m a bit confused, but I want to find out about the NY/NJ legislators and what they are up to. In particular… the snake Shummer.

BTW… I love your work and I too, will be added to the list of donors!

Fidel—If you want to find out more about state legislators from New York and New Jersey who have been ALEC members, you can search our ALEC Contributors database here: http://projects.propublica.org/alec-contributions/.

From NJ, our database includes Steven V. Oroho, Jay Webber, Nicholas R. Felice, and E Scott Garrett.

From NY, our database includes George Pataki and Owen H. Johnson.

Because ALEC keeps its membership private, there may be other NJ/NY legislators who are also ALEC members.

Let me know if you have other questions.

Are the listed legislator/recipients entirely up to date?  ALEC was likely a factor in Rhode Island’s new voter ID law.  Seems to me ALEC is very effective in this very blue state.

James B Storer

Aug. 2, 2011, 8:27 a.m.

A couple months or so ago I learned that the Oklahoma state legislature had passed a bill denying eminent domain provisions requested for the purpose of constructing maintenance and distribution corridors for solar or wind projects.  It seemed very strange that this provision applied only to solar and wind projects, so I began checking out ongoing actions in various state legislatures.  This legislation was appearing in several states as proposals, pending or passed.  The wording in the various proposals are suspiciously similar, so I figured at the time that ALEC was probably involved.  I posted a comment in a ProPublica report at the time, but I cannot find my file this morning.  Anyway, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and the several other states that I checked into are involved.
  The importance of this is that while most of us “greens” are talking, I believe big oil is very busily working the states to ensure that they will be in control when they seamlessly slide from oil to alternative energy production.  This denial of eminent domain will be no barrier to these guys, as they can no doubt buy exceptions to the law.
  The moral is, we spend a lot of time complaining about corruption on the national scale, while ALEC knows that it can accomplish its objectives through the states with much less fanfare.
Skartishu, Granby MO

James, thanks for noting potential ALEC legislation in Oklahoma and elsewhere related to solar and wind projects. An interesting lead to explore.

Thanks for posting this contribution database related to ALEC.

For an “example” State-level investigation you might look at our team’ first crack at it way back in March:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/08/953811/-Gov-Rick-Snyder-Sellout-Prefabricated-Corporate-Michigan-(Government)-Courtesy-of-KochALEC-Excl

We also have a User Group that frequently posted “tips” for finding how bad your State ALEC infestation, and you can ask for help from others working on ALEC for awhile now at:
http://www.dailykos.com/blog/Exposing ALEC

ALSO we now have 83 past and present ALEC Members in Michigan, that you might add to your list. Just let us know where to send it (or other lists). Do you have a criteria? Like current members only, etc?

Handling the donation flows is very important, so having it in one place is very useful.

I just downloaded the 990.

$590,119 to the President and Editor in Chief?

Really?

Isn’t that just a tad excessive?

Hector—Thanks for your feedback. It’s actually the Center for Media and Democracy that has assembled the most current public list of ALEC Members on their ALEC Exposed site. So they’re the people to contact about updating the list. (Our database is based on information from them and from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.)

And Steve, the question of executive compensation at nonprofit news organizations has been discussed by many different media critics, if you’re interested in learning more or putting those salary numbers in context.  There’s plenty to say about it, though this thread is probably not the best place to continue the conversation.

“It does not note that Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and a member of ALEC’s private enterprise board…”

How come the American people only find that they’re in a major war after somebody has launched a sneak attack?

You’d think an internal enemy would have at least a little honor…I think Corporate America should have had the decency to notify the American people that they were at war with us.

Lois Beckett,
You seem to think boiler plate on a supporters page is enough truth. Where to they get there money? People are looking ever more closely at progressive pockets like yours. Money does influence, doesn’t it.

A sign of a successful media source is when their average - average, mind you, not “exceptional” in the way the corporate media sources occasionally turn a young reporter (or one who is approaching retirement and wants to go out with an erased conscience) loose in order to maintain something approaching “street creds” - irrefutable fact-to-analysis ratio is sufficient to irk/disturb/scare the righties enough that they start dedicating time to attacking that media source’s credibility.

lolll…of course, me…I’d have to back-trace the right’s agents…might be a story in it.

Michael Keenan

Aug. 9, 2011, 2:11 p.m.

Use the Internet Archives Wayback Machine to locate past pages of ALEC.

http://www.archive.org/web/web.php

http://wayback.archive.org/web/*/http://www.alec.org

@ Michael K: We use this site and several other tools - If you are interested, we have several data mining projects that are on-going, if you or any others are thinking “what can I do about ALEC” you might join us at:
http://www.dailykos.com/blog/Exposing ALEC

Requires signing up and then you can contact members of the team by requesting to join the group. Once you are checked out and cleared, you can join our growing citizen investigators on leading edge investigations of ALEC. We have big projects, little projects, lots of list work, an “adopt a state program” and targeted investigations of the very motivated.

“Every dime, every crime, all directions, all the time, Exposing ALEC, our new pastime.”

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