Monday, April 16, 2012

Internet Organizing and Popular Outrage Force Corporations to Re-think Funding of ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Goliath-like incubator of conservative legislation at the state level, is being challenged by David-like civil rights activists.

After years of shaping and promoting conservative legislative initiatives, ALEC’s behind-the-scenes activities are being exposed by Color of Change, an on-line civil rights advocacy group, and the Center for Media and Democracy. Both are organizing internet-based campaigns to get major corporations to end their funding of ALEC.

Threatened with on-line petitions, a potential boycott, and hundreds of phone calls, on April 4 Coca-Cola caved after just five hours. In the following days, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Wendy's, McDonald's, Intuit, and Bill and Melinda Gates cut ties as well.

The boycott campaign was grounded in ALEC’s role in developing template legislation for voter ID and so-called “stand your ground” laws.

Trayvon Martin's death and the law that prevented his killer from being initially arrested is an example of how “ALEC's agenda is dangerous for people of color,” according to Color of Change. The NRA and ALEC exported Florida's “stand your ground” law to more than 20 states across the country, Color of Change states.

ALEC, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C, is a conservative lobbying organization that, as its website proclaims, promotes “free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” ALEC brings legislators and business people together at conferences and develops template legislation on a variety of conservative issues. According to ALEC’s federal 990 tax forms for 2010, ALEC had a budget of over $7.1 million.  

Funders include conservative foundations and, in more recent years, major corporations. Exxon Mobile, for instance, gave over $1.2 million from 2001-2009. In its early years, ALEC was kept alive by conservative foundations such as the Milwaukee-based Bradley foundation, the Olin Foundation, and Scaife Family Foundation. Since 1997, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation has been a major supporter. 

The group was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a well-known right-winger who also founded the Heritage Foundation. According to the MediaMatters Action Network, “ALEC has ties to a several right-wing groups, including the Heritage Foundation, The National Rifle Association, and the Family Research Council. Its board of directors includes representatives from PhRMA, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and several other large corporations.”

Voter ID and “stand your ground” legislation are only two of several conservative initiatives that ALEC has successfully peddled to state legislatures throughout the country.

ALEC has played a particularly aggressive role in attacking public education – defunding and dismantling public schools, according to Julie Underwood and Julie Mead, UW-Madison Professors in an article in Phi Delta Kappa. Underwood and Mead explain how the 2,000 state legislators who are members of ALEC work in taskforces and conferences with corporate members to develop model legislation, which the legislators (all of whom but 8 are Republicans) then take back and introduce in their home legislatures.

Underwood and Mead list the topics of educational issues that ALEC is involved in: “teacher certification, teacher evaluation, collective bargaining, curriculum, funding, special education, student assessment…. Common throughout the bills are proposals to decrease local control of schools by democratically elected school boards while increasing access to all facets of education by private entities and corporations.”

A law recently passed in Tennessee aims at undermining the teaching of evolution and is based on ALEC’s model “Environmental Literacy Improvement Act.” The Tennessee law, opposed by a host of scientific and educational organizations, encourages teachers to discuss “scientific controversies” such as “biological evolution” and “global warming.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s playbook shows strong influence from ALEC, of which he is an alumnus.
  •         Within days of being sworn into office, Walker pushed through a tort reform law that was based on ALEC model legislation. Among other things, the law limits liability of corporations even if they knew a product was dangerous.
  •         The deregulation of the telecommunication industry in Wisconsin that was signed into law by Walker in May of 2011 was modeled after ALEC’s model “Regulatory Modernization Act.”
  •          Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining bill, Act 10, was based in large part on ALEC template legislation known as the “Public Employee Freedom Act.”

ALEC’s influence in Wisconsin reaches beyond Gov. Walker. According to the Progressive magazine 9 of the 12 Republican members of the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee are members of ALEC. The committee’s co-chair, Rep. Robin Vos (R – Burlington), also serves as the ALEC state chair.

The Joint Finance committee was responsible for working with Walker to pass the largest cuts in public education funding in the history of Wisconsin.

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