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A Discreet Nonprofit Brings Together Politicians and Corporations to Write 'Model Bills'

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a 35-year-old conservative powerhouse, is under scrutiny for allegedly being a conduit for industry to influence legislation.

This week, both the Los Angeles Times and The Nation put the spotlight on a little-known but influential conservative nonprofit that creates "model" state legislation that often make its way into law. The organization has helped craft some of the most controversial—and industry-friendly—legislation of recent years.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, crafted a model resolution for states calling the EPA's attempts to regulate greenhouse gasses a "trainwreck" and asking Congress to slow or stop the regulations, the Times reported. A press release on ALEC's site says that at least 13 other states have passed resolutions based on their model language.

ALEC was also involved in the writing of Arizona's new immigration law, which gave police officers broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

Brought into being by a legendary conservative who also founded the well-known Heritage Foundation, ALEC has been around since the early 1970s. It calls itself a "policy making program that unites members of the public and private sectors in a dynamic partnership" based on "Jeffersonian principles." Critics say it has devolved into a pay-for-play operation, where state legislators and their families get to go on industry-funded junkets and major corporations get to ghostwrite model laws and pass them on to receptive politicians.

In a multipart report this week, the Nation profiled ALEC's influence on state legislation related to privatization and anti-union efforts,fighting Obama's health care reform, privatizing public education and enacting voter ID laws, which critics say are designed to disenfranchise voters who are more likely to vote Democratic. The Nation also provides a deeper look at the financial and ideological links between the Koch brothers and ALEC.

ALEC representatives tell reporters that its mission is fundamentally "educational." ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber told the LA Times, "Legislators should hear from those the government intends to regulate."

"ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss," another ALEC official, Michael Bowman, told NPR last year. "You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They're just trying to learn a policy and understand it." Neither Weber nor Bowman immediately responded to our requests for further comment.

Corporations pay hefty fees for the opportunity to discuss policy with legislators at ALEC's conferences, and they also host banquets, open-bar parties and baseball games. Legislators, on the other hand, pay a nominal membership fee, and can be eligible for "scholarships" that pay for their conference attendance. When the legislators bring the model bills back to their state capitals, the role played by ALEC—or by the corporations—seems to be rarely, if ever, disclosed.

Crucially, ALEC says it is not a lobbying organization, and thus because of its nonprofit status, it does not have to disclose its donors or the amount of their donations. (The Times says Common Cause is trying to challenge ALEC's nonprofit status.)

Perhaps the most striking example of this process is the involvement of officials from the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company, in the creation of Arizona's immigration law.

As NPR reported last year, officials from Corrections Corporation were in the room when Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce discussed his ideas about immigration at a 2009 ALEC conference.

Reports from Corrections Corporation reviewed by NPR indicated that their executives saw immigrant detention as their next big market, and that the company expected to bring in a "significant portion" of their revenue from Immigrations and Custom Enforcement.

What role the corporate officials played in the ALEC discussion is not known, but the "model legislation" that emerged from that session soon became the bill itself—"almost word for word," according to NPR. The influence the private prison industry may have had on the law was not widely reported or discussed during the heated nationwide debate over the bill. (An "In These Times" reporter, whose early findings on the ALEC-Arizona connection were consistent with NPR's later reporting, recently provided a more detailed look at the ALEC scholarships provided to Arizona legislators.)

Portions of the Arizona law are being challenged in federal court and have never been implemented. But, as NPR reported last year, similar bills were later introduced in eight other states.

ALEC has been in the media spotlight this week because the Center for Media and Democracyobtained and released an archive of more than 800 of ALEC's model bills and resolutions. Their wiki site, ALEC Exposed, encourages readers to browse ALEC's model bills by topic and share their findings about the documents using the hashtag #ALECexposed.

Update (July 19): ALEC's senior director of public affairs, Raegan Weber, spoke to us on Monday about the press coverage of ALEC's activities.

"First and foremost, taking policy positions is not lobbying," Weber said. She emphasized that ALEC's closed-room approval of a model bill is only an initial step in the process of creating a law. "Then it works through the very public legislative process, and then it can change," she said.

Weber noted that most state legislators only work part-time as lawmakers. "They are looking for creative solutions to today's tough issues...why shouldn't they sit in the same room with the people they intend to regulate?" she said. Weber noted that there are several organizations that have a similar structure to ALEC, including the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, and, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Progressive State Network.

"I don't think it's any shock that a conservative organization would have conservative policy, [and] that somebody such as The Nation, and the people who release that information, would disagree with that policy," she said.

"I'm not sure if any of this 'exposure' is that scary, really."

ProPublica intern Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.

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