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Former EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt speaks at an ALEC event sponsored by ExxonMobil, among other dirty energy interests and Fortune 500 companies. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Former EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt speaks at an ALEC event sponsored by ExxonMobil, among other dirty energy interests and Fortune 500 companies. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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ALEC - civil society fights back

Ben Whitford

28th December 2013

Few groups have done more to further the US conservative agenda - and harm progressive causes - than the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. But as Ben Whitford reports, civil society is fighting back.

Virtually every piece of controversial, right-wing legislation passed by America's statehouses in recent years has borne ALEC's grubby fingerprints.

A shadowy but extraordinarily powerful legislation-mill and stealth-lobbying outfit, ALEC specialises in quietly shepherding right-wing legislation through America’s statehouses - a process that, until recently, went all but unnoticed by the national media. 

In recent months, however, ALEC has found itself the subject of a great deal of unwanted attention. The Occupy protests helped draw attention to ALEC’s activities, while the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin led to scrutiny of ALEC’s role in pushing legislation designed to make it harder to prosecute fatal shootings.

The cloak of secrecy is lifted

Internal ALEC documents, meanwhile, have been obtained by PR Watch, the Guardian and others, giving campaigners a rare look at ALEC’s inner workings - and allowing progressives to begin formulating more effective strategies for fighting back.

That’s especially painful for ALEC’s supporters, since historically the group’s key strength has been the secrecy with which it surrounds itself. 

Founded to counter Nixon-era 'big government' measures such as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, ALEC is technically a charity rather than a lobbying group.

That allows its backers - mostly corporations and conservative foundations - to make anonymous, tax-deductible donations. And it lets legislators attend ALEC events without declaring the lavish hospitality they receive.

ALEC's dark power

For overworked, underfunded state legislators, ALEC's charms are hard to resist. "To a legislator sitting out there in Boise with little more than a desk and a phone, we're all there is", one ALEC director bragged.

And indeed, ALEC's reach is extraordinary: it claims to have signed up more than 40% of lawmakers in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, and every single lawmaker in both Iowa and South Dakota. In total, ALEC now boasts over 1,800 members - almost a quarter of all US state legislators.

After being wined and dined, lawmakers receive draft bills, pre-written by ALEC's corporate backers, which many submit without change - and without mention of their provenance - for approval by state legislatures.

In any given year, about 1,000 of ALEC's 'model bills' are introduced, and several hundred are rubber-stamped into law. Virtually every piece of controversial, right-wing legislation passed by America's statehouses in recent years has borne ALEC's grubby fingerprints.

Arizona's notoriously racist anti-immigrant legislation? All ALEC's doing. Stand-your-ground gun laws? Check. Wisconsin's evisceration of labor groups' collective bargaining powers? ALEC again. The list, lamentably, goes on.

Still, ALEC doesn’t look as unshakable as it once did. The furore surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, and ALEC’s role in pushing controversial gun laws, sparked an exodus of dozens of ALEC's corporate backers.

Publicity-sensitive backers back off

Major corporations such as Walmart, Amazon and Coca-Cola, though appreciative of ALEC's pro-business efforts, decided they had no wish to be publicly linked to the wackier aspects of its right-wing agenda.

The loss of those corporate donors punched a big hole in ALEC's finances, and left the group scrabbling for a new strategy. That's led officials to double down on legislation designed to please ALEC's most loyal, deep-pocketed, and unashamed supporters - big agriculture and, especially, the fossil fuel industry, with some 77 new ALEC-backed energy bills introduced in 2013 alone.

Protest is 'terrorism'?

One particularly pernicious bill, proposed by ALEC in 2003 and recently introduced in several states, sought to classify many forms of environmental protest as acts of terrorism.

It would also create a registry, similar to those used for sex offenders, to keep tabs on "ecological terrorists"; and bar campaigners from recording environmental, health or welfare violations at factory farms and research facilities.

In Washington state, ALEC's bill inspired legislation labelling as "terrorism" any activities that impede businesses' normal operations, and making it illegal even to publicise environmental protests.

Washington's bill died in committee. However Utah enacted a similar bill in 2012, and this year prosecuted a citizen journalist named Amy Meyer for filming the outside of a slaughterhouse while standing on public land.

The case collapsed, but that's hardly the point. "The only purpose [of these laws] is to punish investigators", Meyer told reporters. "These laws are intended to keep consumers in the dark."

Fighting for fossil energy, against renewables

Elsewhere, ALEC is pushing a wide range of bills designed to please fossil-fuel donors. An ALEC-backed junket for lawmakers to Alberta's tar-sands proved especially fruitful, with at least 10 states introducing ALEC-penned resolutions in support of the Keystone XL pipeline.

And one Nebraska lawmaker introducing legislation that would allow TransCanada to begin constructing the Nebraskan portion of the controversial pipeline immediately, irrespective of the federal government's decision on the project.

ALEC is also campaigning against states' renewable-energy quotas, which require utility companies to renewably generate a percentage of their total output.

A model law designed to "reform, freeze or repeal" clean-energy quotas, penned for ALEC by the ultraconservative Heartland Institute, was widely introduced, but failed to gain much traction.

Still, the group is planning a renewed push in 2014, chiefly by calling for mandatory quotas to be replaced with an opt-in "market" for renewable energy.

The group also plans to spend 2014 pushing model legislation that would require homeowners with rooftop solar panels to pay utilities for feeding surplus electricity back into the electrical grid, making solar far less attractive and boosting demand for conventional energy.

Speaking to the Guardian, ALEC analyst John Eick said homeowners with solar installations were "essentially freeriders" and that utility companies were within their rights to demand payment.

"How are they going to get that electricity from their solar panel to somebody else's house?" he said. "They should be paying to distribute the surplus electricity."

And that's not all

Other measures on ALEC's books include

  • legislation, drafted by Exxon Mobil and already introduced in five states, that would grant broad "trade secret" rights to fracking companies, helping them conceal the chemicals they pump underground;
  • legislation, introduced in five states, requiring science educators to "teach the controversy" and present students with materials making the case for climate denial;
  • measures granting private companies control of key waste-water and drinking-water services; efforts to obstruct the implementation of carbon taxes, and to hamper oversight of GMO seeds and crops;
  • and, in seven states, legislation asserting state control over federal wilderness preserves, paving the way for state-regulated drilling on protected land.

Clearly, ALEC's legislative wish-list makes for troubling reading. Still, there are grounds to be hopeful. If the recent leaks reveal anything, it's the degree to which public scrutiny hinders ALEC's stealth-lobbying strategy.

Operating in the shadows

ALEC's entire value proposition depends on allowing lawmakers to be privately schmoozed: too much sunlight, and ALEC becomes a liability for both lawmakers and corporate donors alike.

That doesn't mean activists will be able to shame the Koch brothers or Exxon Mobil into cancelling their standing orders. But ALEC is eager to rehabilitate itself with mainstream backers, and has little stomach for issues that draw too much attention.

We've seen that already with gun control, which ALEC has lately distanced itself from, and even some environmental issues. Buried in the leaked documents, for instance, is an aside noting that ALEC now "shies away from animal welfare issues due to PR reasons" despite the "huge untapped private sector prospect base" it forfeits thereby.

That suggests that if greens can keep ALEC in the public spotlight, and make sure that companies remain aware of the PR damage they risk if they associate themselves with the group, then there's a real chance to undermine its anti-environmental agenda.

It's too soon to say that ALEC is on the ropes. But for the first time in its 40-year existence, the group is off-balance and vulnerable. It's up to progressives to make sure that things stay that way.

Take action

  • ALEC Exposed, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, offers the best and most up-to-date account of ALEC's activities, its supporters, and its financial backers.
  • The United States of ALEC collects Common Cause's research into ALEC's state-level legislative and lobbying activities.
  • ALECWatch, a joint project of Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, offers a crash-course in ALEC's excesses.
  • A letter-writing campaign by the Center for Media and Democracy helped to convince 49 firms to stop funding ALEC. Their website lets users automatically email the CEOs and lobby-groups of remaining ALEC funders.
  • Greenpeace is organizing a letter-writing campaign to press Duke Energy - thought to be queasy about some of ALEC's opposition to renewables - to end its funding of the group.
  • RootsAction is focusing on persuading tech giants such as Google and Facebook to rethink their continuing support for ALEC.



Ben Whitford is The Ecologist's US correspondent. He can be reached at mail@benwhitford.com.



 

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