This first piece introduces the listener to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) by showing how the legislation it influences affect everyday issues from residential solar power to the impunity with which ALEC’s “Stand your Ground” law allows individuals to be shot. It introduces the listener to the working hypothesis KBOO reporters used to collect, analyze and report on the data they collected. It explains the positions of those legislators who seem to be committed to doing whatever they feel they need to do to support their constituencies. And it draws basic connections between ALEC, ALEC member businesses, ALEC influenced legislators, ALEC events and ALEC related campaign contributions.
- Introducing ALEC 21:27
DM – What would you do if I told you that there was an organization operating here in Oregon that was directly responsible for the shootings of Trayvon Martin? What would you do if I told you that this organization was behind Oregon Senate Bill 633 that became law during the last legislative session with the official name of the Oregon GMO Protection Act and the primary purpose was to prevent communities from blocking the planting of genetically modified seeds? What would you do if I told you that this same organization was responsible for making you pay a penalty if you install solar panels on your house to sell electricity back to the utility company? Maybe all this sound too incredible to believe so maybe at this moment you can’t think of anything that you would do. But we’ll come back to that question.
YM – This is the first installment in a new KBOO investigative reporting effort. These pieces over the next few months reveal affiliations between the Oregon legislature and a powerful group that feeds corporate authored model bills to lawmakers in Salem. Those lawmakers and those bills share an ideology with the businesses that promote them. But it’s a view that many small businesses and ordinary Oregon citizens may not share.
SS – This organization bears the innocuous name of the American Legislative Exchange Council or Alec for short. And although the name may remind you of a hipster on a fixed gear bike, there is nothing leisurely about ALEC. This series with the help of the grant from the fund for investing in journalism will attempt to show you how legislators and corporations are speaking to you reassuringly while crafting legislation that is slowly but profoundly changing your life and how you live it.
DM – We got this grant because KBOO’s news news director Jenka Sodeberg saw it and applied for in 2013. KBOO was awarded the grant in January 2014. Shortly thereafter she assigned me, Don Merrill to be lead reporter and I found a great group of other reporters, Sam Smith, Yana Maximova, Sam Bouman and Mike Klepfer
YM – Between mid-February and now, we’ve been learning how things work, campaign finance rules, how ALEC creates what it calls “model legislation”, how legislators bring that legislation back to their states to try to make it law, how companies that are part of ALEC’s eight task force seek to influence legislation and legislators financially either through trips or campaign donations. And finally and most important, how those laws affect you. For the next few minutes we going to lay out the pieces of this project so you can know what to expect in the coming weeks and months.
SS – Again the objective of this work is to see the connection detrimental to non-corporate interests exists between ALEC and the Oregon legislature and if that connection is affecting good governance. We’ll do this by following a working hypothesis. If your memory of a hypothesis is a little fuzzy, it’s a supposition. When you hypothesize you’re assuming that something is the way it is because of something else. Then you have to prove whether that’s true or not. Some hypotheses have lots of pieces in each piece has been proven to be true or not. If it’s true, you move onto the next piece. If it is not true you to throw that piece out, create a new piece and then prove it. But if one piece is wrong it doesn’t mean a whole hypothesis is wrong.
DM – The hypothesis the KBOO news team is using to approach this grant is this; some members of the Oregon legislature have accepted ALEC model bills introduced those bills and made them Oregon law. They’ve done this while receiving direct or indirect financial compensation either in the form of campaign contributions or vacations for them and their families. Businesses have benefited while dis-empowered groups have suffered.
YM – Here is that hypothesis again piece by piece. Some members of the Oregon legislature have accepted model bills, introduced those bills and they made them Oregon law. That’s the first piece. We think our lawmakers accepted model legislation from Alec to the benefit of ALEC.
SS – They’ve done this while receiving direct or indirect financial compensation either in the form of campaign contributions or lavish vacations for them and their families. That’s the second piece. Oregon legislators receive something that ultimately translates in something of monetary value, in essence revealing a quid pro quo.
DM – Business interests have benefited. That’s the third piece. In exchange for those legislators making ALEC legislation state law, ALEC corporate sponsors and businesses benefit financially by helping those businesses stifle competition, declaw consumer protections and ultimately maximize profit.
YM – While dis-empowered groups have suffered. That’s the last piece. All of this produces winners and losers. ALEC corporations are the obvious winners. This piece of the hypothesis assumes there are losers and we are going to look for them so they can tell us if they been hurt and how.
SS – This hypothesis doesn’t assume members legislature had done anything wrong. We talked to dozens of state legislators of the last few weeks and months and in one way or another, all of them have given the impression that they are dedicated public servants who hold the needs of their constituency in the highest regard. Here’s what Ted Ferrioli, current Republican leader for the Oregon Senate told KBOO earlier this year:
Ted Ferroili soundbyte – 1:38
“I suppose you could go from very general to very specific. Is this policy whoever is proposing the policy good for Oregonians? More specifically is it good for the folks who sent me to represent them, in my case it’s folks from 36,000 mi.² east of the Cascades where the principal industries are cattle ranching and agriculture, where communities have about half of the per capita income when compared to the rest of the state of Oregon, perhaps a less well-educated, certainly not much access to best transit. They are, in demographics similar to distressed communities of the inner-cities. So that demographic is one that says to me remove obstacles to job creation, do what I can to stabilize and assist a[gricultural] production, pay attention to cattle ranching and grazing issues, make sure water issues are dealt with at the community level so that irrigators aren’t locked out in our effort to support and sustain our salmon population. You know there has to be a balance, I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at. Down the line somewhere in perhaps way down the line is the professional communicators, lobbyists, their interests… unless there’s a real correlation there, I’m not I don’t care what they have to say. An interesting story just doesn’t affect my vote.”
DM – But the influence of special interest groups like ALEC do have influence and not always to the benefit of those same constituents so says Republican Dennis Richardson, a current candidate for Oregon governor.
Dennis Richardson – 1:38
My position is that if a company or individual sends me money, unless it’s the something that’s a real moral issue or something that that I find totally unacceptable, I will accept the contribution because they’re saying that they want to support me. That’s not saying I want to support them. They don’t buy my vote but they buy access like everybody else. I give access to everyone and when I’m governor, I plan on having office hours so that citizens can come and see me as well. I’m I know I can’t see everyone but I think that the governor needs to be open and available and transparent to people and I believe that the contributions there are vitally important. I mean the public employee unions that contribute to a Democratic candidate are unlikely to contribute to me. I would welcome it but to say a corporation shouldn’t contribute to a Republican but that it’s okay for AFSCME or SEIU to contribute millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns and in a way, because there have been people who have said we expect a return on our investment, I mean that they’re investing in people who they think will see life the way that they see it, it’s it needs to be a fair playing field. And I think Oregon is as fair as any because it’s open and transparent. We don’t have limits on how much you can receive but whatever you receive it has to be disclosed and so if there is a contributor whether it’s a corporation or a wealthy individual that is giving a lot of money to one candidate, it’s gonna be open for everybody to know, the opponents will help make sure that it becomes public issue and then the people decide whether it was appropriate or not.”
DM – When we come back, we’ll look at how ALEC is structured.
DM – ALEC began in 1973 when conservative state legislators in Illinois came together with the aim of reducing government oversight in markets and decentralizing government power. The organization grew through the 80s taking on a new and powerful role through its partnership with the Reagan Administration as a distributor for the presidential cabinets literature on federalism. Early on ALEC was influential in slowing the liberalization of the US educational system as well as leading the charge against liability claims for businesses accused of causing injury or death because of poor materials or manufacturing processes.
YM – Following the Reagan Administration, ALEC placed its emphasis on the formation of new public private partnerships it calls task forces and began to move to actively solicit input of so-called private sector members and focus on creating model legislation. On its website ALEC boasts that of the 10,000 bills introduced by legislators around the country each year, over 1000 or 10% based on its model legislation are introduced each year in the US. From those, it says as many as 20% of those becoming law. For perspective, over the last short legislative session in Oregon, 88 Senate Bills and 156 house bills, for a total of 244 were introduced. By ALEC’s numbers, 24 or those were probably ALEC bills and at least five of those passed.
DM – In May 2012, the Oregonian reported that one fourth of the Oregon legislature were active ALEC members. Don Merrill asked Art Robinson, the head of Oregon’s Republican party about the influence of groups like ALEC. He’s running against Democrat Pete DeFazio for the Oregon house in the fourth district and he showed that not all members on the right think influence from groups like ALEC is helpful or legal.
Art Robinson – :53
“When a lobbyist came to my office, and said I’d like some favor for the people I represent, I’m the kind of guy that would open my constitution, and say you know, it’s nice to see you, please give my best to the wife and children but I don’t see you here in the Constitution so I have no ability to help you. I think there is the too much lobbying, vast amounts of money are spent to try to influence congressmen in Washington to do things differently than their oath of office which is to follow the constitution in all matters. So I again I don’t want to paint with a broad brush and tell you I don’t like any of the lobbyists but think it’s far too much of it and too many congressmen pay attention to lobbyists when they should be paying attention to their oath of office.”
DM – According to its website, ALEC says it works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan, public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.
YM – But that there are a few key points left out. Free-market enterprise limited government tends to mean little to no government oversight or regulation. The kind of government Grover Norquist once described he wanted to shrink down to where it was small enough that it could be drowned in a bathtub. Federalism has several meanings but staunch conservatives tend to defer to the reference made by James Madison in the Federalist papers. Both he and Alexander Hamilton seemed to say that although states are units of the federal government, they are in many ways equal to the federal government and if one encroaches too much in people’s rights, the other should be able to free them from that encroachment.
SS – For conservatives, this is the basis for the 10th Amendment which essentially says that powers not belonging to the federal government belong to the states. And it is upon this rock that the political right tries to weaken the federal government as much as possible, whether through what’s known as “starving the beast” and angering citizens by showing an underfunded government to be ineffective or in recent years by employing “sovereignty clauses” in an effort to exempt states, counties and municipalities from federal law.
DM – Nonpartisan, another term in that ALEC mission statement does not necessarily mean bipartisan. The overwhelming majority of ALEC legislative members are conservative and that means they tend to hold the interest of ALEC’s corporate members at least as high as their larger but less influential groups of constituents. At least one of those Democratic ALEC members, Wisconsin Representative Chris Taylor, is a self-described mole that makes public ALEC private meetings and is a true thorn in the organization’s side.
Chris Taylor – :30
“From what I could see there was equal representation on the task force between the private members who are either big Corporation representatives or right wing think tanks and the public members. So it was extremely balanced in that way. I didn’t see an overwhelming, in fact I actually thought I saw more private members than public members, than more legislators. I mean I did not have one colleague from Wisconsin here.”
YM – Finally public-private partnership speaks to the effort by ALEC to wrest control of publicly funded services and with the help of corporate backers, put those services under the control of bodies that would prefer to operate them in the business rather than the public service model. Here in Portland, listeners need to look no further than the current issue regarding the Portland Water Bureau versus the Portland Water Reform Initiative. We don’t know if that is ALEC inspired effort but it seems to share the pedigree. All in all, it’s a quite accurate mission statement for the 1%.
SS – Supporters of ALEC, like ALEC state legislative chair Gene Whisnant, say the organization is being unfairly labeled by the media, saying it is not much different from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Here is Representative Whisnant talking to KBOO reporters Mike Klepfer and Yana Maximova at the ALEC Spring conference in Kansas City last week.
“MK – So would you say that ALEC is essentially just a free-market version of NCSL?
Gene Whisnant – And it’s conservative members. More conservative members come here and share exchange ideas, what’s been successful, what didn’t work, what may work. And then I have to consider where that is that worth my time and effort to try to push it in Oregon. It’s a good it’s no different from NCSL except you’ve got more conservatives here …
MK – Right
Gene Whisnant – And the connection with the with the private is no different than everyday in Salem.”
DM – But according to PR Watch, part of the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC’s corporate governance structure, near total reliance on corporate funding and strong ties to legislators from predominantly one party make it distinctly different. NCSL is run by an executive committee made up of legislators only. Corporations and their lobbyists are not members of NCSL committees. NCSL rarely if ever develops model legislation but it does widely share its governance rules and substantive policy positions online.
YM – NCSL does not accept for-profit corporate members or donors. In 2010, NCSL’s general fund was $16.8 million. State legislators contribute about $10 million a year to NCSL. ALEC, on the other hand, is funded almost entirely by its corporate members. In 2009, ALEC’s revenues were $6.3 million. About 1% of its revenues came from dues paid by state legislators. That is over 98.6% of ALEC’s money come from sources other than legislative dues including primarily funds from for-profit corporations and foundations funded by the family fortunes of corporate CEOs.
SS – NCSL is led by a fully bipartisan group of legislators through an executive committee. Each year the chair of NCSL’s executive committee rotates between Republican and Democrat legislators. Meanwhile ALEC is led jointly by a corporate board and a 23 member public board. All the public board members are Republican legislators and the board is chaired by Representatives Noble Ellington. There is no indication that a democratic legislator has ever chaired ALEC’s public board.
DM – ALEC has been accused of being a very secretive and insular organization. But in 2011 and in 2013 troves of documents about the inner workings of ALEC were leaked. John Pilkington of the Guardian and John Nichols of The Nation both separately reported on the influence of ALEC, the way their model bills are drafted and the relationships between legislators and the companies on the ALEC task forces that initiate those bills and influence some legislators to support them.
DM – The number of task forces in ALEC has shifted over the years but not by much. The organization has historically operated about eight of them; education, energy, environment and agriculture, justice performance, communications and technology, civil justice, commerce insurance and economic development, international relations and tax and fiscal policy. And many of ALEC’s corporate members either have branch offices in Oregon or are identified by the Oregon Secretary of State corporations website as registered to do business in Oregon. And the task forces have been busy.
YM – For example in Oregon, the energy, environment and agriculture task force was the inspiration for House Bill 4042 introduced in 2014. It was designed to make those users of solar panels who had intended to sell extra energy back to utility companies pay a subsidy to those companies, essentially wiping out any money they might have made. Another piece of ALEC legislation from this task force, Senate Bill 633 prevented small communities from outlawing the use of genetically modified seeds. Local farms could potentially be contaminated by seeds or spores from an operation using this. But state law would prevent communities from enacting their own laws to stop them. Both of those bills passed and are now state law.
SS- Representative Kim Thatcher is a Republican who holds the seat in House District 25 but is running for the seat in Senate District 13. She’s an ALEC member and defends them way to task forces draft legislation and encourages legislators to adopt them even if she doesn’t always support them.
Kim Thatcher – 2:21
“Somebody from some state will say, hey, this is a good thing we did here in XYZ state. It may or may not apply to your states. You can take it or leave it but this is a good thing we had and we’ll have a discussion about it. And the public members of that particular task force as well as the private members – as you know that the big controversy because there are people from private industry who are who sit in on on the task forces and are members of the task force that can vote on whether something should become a model bill or not. It doesn’t mean every everything that a private member brings forward become the model bill. And just because something becomes a model bill doesn’t mean that it’s it’s going to become law. If you’re going to as a legislator tell this industry over there this is how you have to do things, whether it makes sense or not, I don’t see how it hurts to have input from the industries affected by that. And having that back and forth I think makes better legislation. Now do some of the people are representing industries, do they have the interest of the people at heart? No they have their businesses at heart. And so the people serving in the public need to take that into consideration and remember that the interest of the public have to have bearing and be first and foremost. And you know something done as model legislation doesn’t mean I agree with it. Just because I’m a member of ALEC doesn’t mean I voted for it. If you look online and you look at the transparency website – I hope you have by the way – there is a section called public meeting notices. And that lists all of the public meetings for all the agencies and boards and commissions for the state that fall under the rules of public meetings. There are so many. And at these agencies, boards and commissions and work groups and task forces and all that, there’s legislation being discussed, ideas are coming forward and they’re not necessarily from people to have the public interest at heart either. I mean they have their own agenda and so we get, as legislators ideas from all these places. And as a representative I don’t rubber stamp something, I want to vett it”
DM – And that’s what we’ll be doing over the next few weeks, looking at the relationship between Oregon legislators and ALEC and we’ll be doing the vetting on your behalf. I’m Don Merrill. I’m Sam Smith. And I’m Yana Maximova.
Last update on October 23, 2014 reflects most recent changes.