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How the Wisconsin Legislature Was Bought

Right-wing group ALEC gets its way

Apr. 25, 2012
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In the weeks since the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the public has learned more about the highly secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

So how is this secretive, shady organization connected to the killing of an unarmed 17-year-old in Florida?

Concerned citizens have started to ask: Was the shooter emboldened by recent state legislation? And, if so, how did that legislation come to be?

Enter ALEC.

People are learning how conservative state legislators have been getting their policy ideas, and they don't like what they're finding.

ALEC pairs conservative state legislators with corporate representatives to produce model legislation such as Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, Wisconsin's new castle doctrine, various voter ID bills, telecom deregulation bills, anti-consumer tort reform and Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070.

ALEC boasts that its summit meetings and issue-based task forces provide its corporate members unprecedented access to very conservative, pro-free-market legislators, who then introduce ALEC's model legislation in statehouses across the country.

ALEC, organized as a tax-exempt, nonprofit charitable organization, was launched in the mid-1970s by Paul Weyrich. It has operated behind closed doors, known only to legislators and major corporations.

But Trayvon Martin's death changed all that.

Color of Change and other progressive groups have called for corporate members to drop their membership in ALEC so that the organization's funding is diminished and it can no longer create destructive model legislation, including Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

As a result, 13 corporations have cut ties with ALEC. Those corporations include Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell), McDonald's, Wendy's, Mars Inc., Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Intuit, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Reed Elsevier, American Traffic Solutions, Arizona Public Service and, on Monday, Procter & Gamble.

In addition, ALEC has disbanded its Public Safety and Elections Task Force, which had been responsible for the Florida law, Wisconsin's castle doctrine—which has allowed the man who shot and killed Bo Morrison on March 3 in Slinger to evade criminal investigation and charges—as well as the budget-busting truth-in-sentencing law and voter ID laws that suppress turnout on Election Day.

ALEC is spinning this move by saying it's "refocusing our commitment to free market, limited government and pro-growth principles."

Although more than a dozen companies have jumped ship, many of ALEC's most prominent members remain: AT&T, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Companies Public Sector, Pfizer, pharmaceutical lobby PhRMA, Reynolds American, State Farm Insurance, UPS and Wal-Mart, among them.

(ALEC's spokeswoman did not respond to the Shepherd's request to comment for this article.)

Wisconsin's Role in ALEC Backlash

Although Trayvon Martin's death has intensified public interest in ALEC, the case against this shadowy organization began to be made in Wisconsin in 2011.

Not surprisingly, Gov. Scott Walker's initial pieces of legislation lit the fuse.

Immediately upon taking office in January 2011, Walker called a special session of the Legislature allegedly to focus on jobs. Included in his package of bills was a tort reform measure that sharply reduced consumer protections—an ALEC model bill.

ALEC's fiscal policy director, Jonathan Williams, then cheered on Walker's attack on collective bargaining for public employees, saying, "Wisconsin has become ground zero. What happens could serve as a domino, win or lose, in either direction."

Walker's sudden departure from his more moderate persona on the 2010 campaign trail spurred University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon to investigate potential sources of the new governor's radical legislation. That led Cronon to ALEC. His March 2011 blog post—on his personal website—questioned the ethics and tactics of the organization and generated national attention.

Shockingly, the Republican Party of Wisconsin made an open records request for Cronon's work emails, widely seen as a way to intimidate scholars and others who oppose the conservative movement. It was just a taste of the sort of harassment Walker opponents would have to bear in the coming months.

Model Bills Leaked to Madison Organization

Cronon's blog post ended with a call to action.

"One conclusion seems clear: What we've witnessed in Wisconsin during the opening months of 2011 did not originate in this state, even though we've been at the center of the political storm in terms of how it's being implemented," he wrote. "This is a well-planned and well-coordinated national campaign, and it would be helpful to know a lot more about it."

Some anonymous source met the challenge.

Last spring, more than 800 model ALEC bills—previously only seen by ALEC members—were leaked to the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). CMD analyzed those bills, as well as ALEC's tax returns and other documents, then launched its ALEC Exposed effort (www.alecexposed.org) last summer, which has become a vital resource for reporters and government watchdog organizations.

"We had looked at ALEC, but because ALEC is so secretive—intentionally secretive—we couldn't do a whole lot with it," said Brendan Fischer, law fellow at CMD, about the organization's pre-leak investigations. "The information just wasn't there."

CMD staffers found that ALEC model bills had influenced a host of pro-corporate, anti-consumer, anti-democratic legislation introduced and passed in Wisconsin and other states, including the new, ultra-restrictive voter ID law; tort reform; Milwaukee's original voucher program and its expansion; telecom deregulation; the castle doctrine; and truth in sentencing, which Walker had championed when he was serving in the state Legislature in the 1990s.

Even Walker's opposition to federal health care reform can be traced to ALEC, Fischer said. Early in his term, Walker had set up an Office of Free Market Health Care to establish the state's health insurance exchange system and implement the federal reforms. But at the beginning of 2012, Walker suddenly announced that he was shuttering that office and refusing to set up an insurance exchange.

Credit ALEC for Walker's flip-flop.

"Not too long after [an ALEC meeting in New Orleans], the Walker administration announced it would reverse course and not implement the exchanges," Fischer said. "It wasn't necessarily an ALEC model bill, but it was definitely an idea bouncing around the ALEC meeting in New Orleans."

Although ALEC doesn't disclose its membership, CMD was able to compile the names of at least some Wisconsin legislators who are members. State Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) is the state chair; his fellow ALEC members in the state Assembly are Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), voter ID law author Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), Rep. Patricia Strachota (R-West Bend) and castle doctrine author Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford). Senate members include Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls), Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) and Sen. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee).

Prominent former ALEC members include Gov. Scott Walker, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, Public Service Commission Chair Phil Montgomery, recently retired concealed carry author Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau) and Democrat Jeff Plale, now working in the Walker administration.

Questioning ALEC's Methods

ALEC isn't merely getting blowback for the impact of its model legislation. It's also getting heat for how it creates that legislation. Its critics charge that ALEC is a corporate lobbying group abusing its tax-exempt, nonprofit status as a charitable organization.

State legislators pay $50 for an annual membership; corporate members pay thousands—and thousands more if they want to participate in a task force. Corporations can also sponsor activities at ALEC summits, as, for example, Time Warner did last year, when it underwrote food and drinks at an exclusive party at a Cincinnati baseball game. (Weeks later, Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill that just happens to promote Time Warner's interests, a CMD investigation found.)

On Monday, the government watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that ALEC is no mere charitable organization. Rather, "ALEC is a corporate lobbying group masquerading as a public charity," the complaint states.

What's more, because it's a "charitable organization," ALEC's corporate members can write off their contributions as tax deductions. In reality, that money should rightly be reported as lobbying expenses, Common Cause argues.

In Wisconsin, CMD has filed an ethics complaint with the state Government Accountability Board, alleging that ALEC's "scholarships"—corporate donations given to state legislators to attend ALEC meetings—break numerous ethics and lobbying laws. As part of its ongoing Alec Exposed investigation, CMD found that ALEC state chairs—currently state Rep. Vos and lobbyist Amy Boyer of the Hamilton Consulting Group—solicit funds directly from corporate sponsors for these scholarships, violating Wisconsin law. (Vos and Boyer did not respond to the Shepherd's requests to comment for this article.)

Earlier this year, state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) introduced a bill that would treat ALEC as a lobbying entity, which would prohibit legislators from accepting anything of value from it.

"ALEC completely subverts [Wisconsin's lobbying laws], where they can give airfare and junkets and there are no questions asked," Larson said.

The Republican-led Legislature never scheduled a public hearing for that bill—the first of its kind in the nation.

Larson laughed off ALEC members' arguments that the organization is just like any other group that includes lawmakers in its ranks, like the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), of which Larson is a member. NCSL is a highly respected nonpartisan organization made up solely of lawmakers and their staffs.

"At no point is the head of an industry going to cozy up to me [at an NCSL meeting], somebody who can give a huge contribution or influence the outcome of an election and say, 'Isn't this a fantastic idea that you would pass a law that wouldn't regulate my industry? Or that kicks my competitive industry in the shin?'" Larson said. "That's something that doesn't happen at NCSL. But at ALEC, that's what they do. That's all that they do."


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