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ALEC Struggles in the Spotlight

Private documents show the right-wing ‘corporate bill mill’ is suffering under scrutiny

Dec. 11, 2013
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The fallout from the Trayvon Martin shooting death and increased scrutiny from a Wisconsin-based watchdog group have made life difficult for the right-wing legislation-writing organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

That’s just one of the bombshells included in the internal ALEC documents published by The Guardian of London last week.

The 53 pages of documents revealed that ALEC:

  • Has lost 66 corporate funders and 390 member legislators in the past two years
  • Considered requiring its state leaders to take a loyalty oath, promising that they will “act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first”
  • Is trying to do damage control in sympathetic media outlets so that “the organization is increasingly recognized as a conservative, free-market think tank, rather than a ‘corporate bill mill that secretly manipulates thousands of legislators’”
  • Has created a new organization to allow it to lobby legally after decades of gaming the tax code as a tax-exempt, nonprofit charity that does not lobby legislators
  • Is scrambling to attract new corporations by offering model legislation and specific task forces to suit their business needs

It’s a very different picture than the rosy one ALEC has tried to present in the wake of the Martin shooting in February 2012 and the revelations turned up by the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which published ALEC’s model legislation on its website (alecexposed.org) and has made public the corporate donors and far-reaching impact of ALEC’s model legislation.


‘ALEC Is Hurting’

ALEC had claimed that it hadn’t suffered since CMD and the media began focusing on its activities in light of the Martin shooting, which raised questions about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. ALEC used that law as model legislation to be copied and introduced in statehouses around the country.

The documents tell a different story. ALEC set up a “Prodigal Son Project” to win back corporate funders it lost, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Mars, Amazon.com, Walmart, MillerCoors, General Electric and Walgreens.

Its overall membership dropped from 2,480 in 2011—before the Martin shooting—to 2,032 today.

“It’s really significant that ALEC is hurting,” said Brendan Fischer, CMD’s staff counsel. “They are wilting in the spotlight. Transparency is not their friend.”

ALEC’s representatives wouldn’t answer the Shepherd’s questions, instead referring all questions about the Guardian leak to prepared responses on its website.

One statement blamed the media on “distorting” the role ALEC played in the Martin case and it denied losing membership.

“During 2013, the American Legislative Exchange Council experienced strong growth” and added “more than 300 new members.”

The internal documents show that while ALEC gained 15 new corporate members and 264 new legislators in 2013, overall it’s down 27 corporate members and 200 legislators from its 2012 membership totals.

That said, the ultra-conservative Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation’s support is going strong. The Bradley foundation donated $95,000 to ALEC in 2010, $75,000 in 2011, and $70,000 in 2012.


‘Abusing the Tax Code’

The right-wing organization was set up to write model bills that furthered the interests of its corporate funders. These bills—written by corporate-funded think tanks and lobbyists in private meetings with partner legislators—are introduced in statehouses around the country by its legislator members. ALEC’s bills have weakened consumer protections here in Wisconsin and around the country, opened up new business opportunities for private prison companies, and have attacked environmental regulations, the Affordable Care Act and voting rights.

ALEC is set up as a tax-exempt nonprofit charity, which means that it can only do a limited amount of lobbying. But ALEC has claimed that it does no lobbying for its pet bills.

In reality, ALEC exists solely to facilitate lobbying on its own bills, which are drafted by corporate lobbyists and corporate-funded think tanks, Fischer said.

The internal documents reveal that ALEC is so concerned about the legality of its lobbying activities that it has set up a partner organization, the Jeffersonian Project, that will allow it to comply with ethics rules and tax laws. But, as always, the project is designed to help boost ALEC’s bottom line.

“The Jeffersonian Project will be a new revenue source for ALEC and will lead to increased funding,” states an internal document released by The Guardian.

Fischer called the Jeffersonian Project “an admission that they have been abusing the tax code for years.”

That said, neither ALEC nor the Jeffersonian Project will be required to disclose its donors, which are cloaked in anonymity.


Wisconsin Is Front and Center

Also mentioned in the documents is state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), who served on the national finance committee and just last week became ALEC’s second vice chairwoman. Vukmir didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to speak about her involvement with ALEC, but her official biography states that she was ALEC’s Legislator of the Year in 2009.

CMD had attempted to obtain her ALEC correspondence, but Vukmir asserted that she didn’t have to comply with their open records requests. CMD’s Fischer told the Shepherd that his organization and Vukmir are in settlement discussions at the moment but that he couldn’t comment on them.

In addition to Vukmir, Wisconsin was represented at ALEC’s national conference last week. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Congressman Paul Ryan, both Republicans, spoke at the Washington, D.C., event. Johnson, like ALEC, is a climate change skeptic, and Ryan’s attempt to turn Medicaid into block grants is the basis of draft ALEC model bills, Fischer told the Shepherd.


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