Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Who has ALEC assigned to lead South Carolina?

Today, South Carolina's lawmakers reconvened in Columbia to take up pressing issues of the day. One thing that should be addressed quickly is undoing Governor Nikki Haley's Orwellian order that public employees answer their telephones with "It's a great day in South Carolina." While unemployment is still above 11 percent and South Carolina still can't afford to fully fund its meager commitment to public schoolchildren, it may not be such a great day for everyone yet.

Another thing to watch for is the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council on this year's session. Thanks to a lot of alternative media coverage in recent months, encouraged in part by the Occupy movements around the country, ALEC has been unmasked as the root of a lot of ultra-conservative -- and anti-public-education -- legislation in many state legislatures.

At a recent ALEC meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, a reporter was booted for daring to cover the organization's activities. If this was a private company gathering, there'd be no problem with an expectation of privacy. But ALEC is made up of state lawmakers -- people on the public payroll -- and it generates legislation that these lawmakers take back to their states, including here in South Carolina. Shouldn't that qualify as public business?

I’m here to learn more about this increasingly muscular organization, formally an educational non-profit — and one that shuns the “L” word, lobbyist. It puts state lawmakers together with representatives from some of the country’s most powerful corporations to advance their legislative agendas. And it’s the most influential organization the majority of Americans have never heard of.

As the coming federal election sucks all the oxygen out of America’s political room, it’s easy to ignore the power of the states, and the changes that are quietly taking place across the country independent of — and often hostile to — the federal government. But, for understanding grassroots America, ALEC, here in God’s golf country, is a good place to start.

In the words of its manifesto, “ALEC provides its public- and private-sector members with a unique opportunity to work together to develop policies and programs that effectively promote the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty.”

And the success of its efforts is in little doubt.

By its own record, it has created an arsenal of about 800 “model” bills, templates or blueprints for future laws. They are tabled about 1,000 times a year across the country; about one in five are passed.

Some 2,000 state legislators belong to the organization...

So, which of South Carolina's lawmakers are members of ALEC? ALEC won't publish its list of members who are public elected officials, although they are public elected officials. That makes it difficult to know for sure.

To the ...growing number of media and non-governmental organizations who study it closely, ALEC is a factory for legislative bills that replicate across the 50 states, with the aim of undercutting the public sector and the role of government and promoting free-market policy at state level, where it often counts the most.

ALEC-backed provisions have opposed climate change legislation and environmental regulation, stoked the effort to privatize prisons and schools, pushed for rollbacks of workers’ rights, for limited voting rights and tax breaks for the wealthy. The results, critics say, line the pockets of corporations — a charge ALEC and its defenders insist is misrepresenting its operating style.

“The benefits of ALEC are that you don’t have to walk through 50 different legislatures,” says Jeff Reed, an Indiana “school choice” advocate who campaigns for developing alternatives to the public school system. “You can share ideas with everyone in the same room. But the people in the room are not in lockstep.”

But ALEC’s very success in advancing its policies has sparked a backlash in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, where police and firefighters joined protests against anti-union legislation.
“When a company needs a state bill passed,” writes the far-from-radical Bloomberg Businessweek, “the American Legislative Exchange Council can get it done.”

ALEC officials routinely deny it, insisting that in this “laboratory of democracy” lawmakers, not corporations, have the final word on the bills that emerge for approval: if companies have a hand on the legislative tiller, it is not the upper hand.

If it's elected officials who organize themselves and put on these conferences, why aren't they open to the public? It seems a fair question. If it's not elected officials who do this work, then who really pays for these events?

The group’s 300-strong corporate members include some of the most high-profile in America: among them AT&T, Wal-Mart, GlaxoSmithKline, UPS, Pfizer, Bayer, Verizon, and Koch Industries — headed by the Kansas-based billionaire brothers nicknamed “the Kochtopus” for their wide-ranging financial and ideological influence.

Corporate giants? What interest do they have in influencing public policy, especially when it has to do with public education?

Inside the hotel’s vast conference wing all is calm and bright, in spite of the numerous vigilant security guards. ...Conference tables are strewn with soberly titled reports by right-wing think tanks allied with ALEC: the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the Franklin Center, the Tax Foundation and more.

They explain how poor states can become richer by cutting taxes, how retiree health benefits can be reined in, how “school choice” can create private alternatives to education.

And how did they come to get involved in public education?

Born in 1973, to a group of conservative state lawmakers and policy wonks, ALEC can’t claim the provenance of the Founding Fathers. But after a modest beginning during President Richard Nixon’s term, and a slow ascendancy, it became a resounding hit in recent years, backed by corporate heft.

Now thousands of the elect and the elected head for its conferences, the latter assisted by ALEC’s “scholarship” funds. Some join the nine task forces and legislative boards that create template bills, alongside similar bodies set up for their corporate counterparts. The final vote, ALEC says, has no input from the corporations. (Critics, unsurprisingly, say otherwise. “Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line,” says the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy.)

If ALEC doesn't reveal the names of members who are elected officials, maybe reporters in South Carolina's capital press corps can find out.

Or, we could wait to see who files the same bills that are being filed in dozens of other states, word for word, and we'll know.

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