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Under Fire for its Hard-Right Policies, ALEC Meets in DC to Try to Stop the Bleeding

The corporate front-group came under scrutiny after the Trayvon Martin Killing.
 
 
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At the end of a tumultuous year that has seen the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) come under unprecedented scrutiny for its role in advancing a slate of right-wing legislation, the corporate-friendly organization of state lawmakers and special interest lobbyists convenes this week in Washington, DC to try and salvage its viability. 

At this week's meeting, ALEC members will by treated to presentations like "Best Practices for Debt Collection and Tax Amnesty" from student loan company Sallie Mae and a talk on state unemployment from the Koch-funded Mercatus Center. Representatives of the Mortgage Bankers Association will present to the Financial Services Subcommittee, which is co-chaired by a lobbyist for Visa. The Heritage Foundation's James Sherk (whose work is funded by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation) will discuss "how to limit union influence."

But only a handful of new "model" bills are on the agenda. According to ALEC task force documents obtained through open records requests, the meeting will largely consist of deciding which bills from its vast library to "sunset" and which to retain or amend -- an apparent effort to scrub their history of far-right model bills, and likely a response to a year of intense criticism. Hopefully the organization is reviewing some of its more retrograde proposals, such as its stalwart opposition to minimum wage laws and support for climate change denial. At least for this meeting, ALEC is focused less on proactively developing legislation and more on damage control. 

ALEC Under Fire in 2012

ALEC came under particularly intense criticism starting in March 2012 for its national drive to promote the “Stand Your Ground” gun law that initially shielded 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's killer from prosecution, and weathered additional criticism in the following months over its role in advancing laws that make it harder to vote, that criminalize immigrants, protect corporations from civil liability, thwart environmental regulations, and cut holes in the social safety net -- all while enjoying tax-exempt "charitable" status.

In response to the criticism, more than 40 corporations, including General Motors, General Electric, Amazon.com, and Coca-Cola, have severed ties with ALEC. ALEC has also been the subject of multiple IRS complaints alleging that it has violated its charitable 501(c)(3) status by acting primarily as a conduit for corporate interests to lobby state legislators, thereby allowing these special interests to write-off their lobbying expenses as a charitable deduction. 

ALEC legislators -- who in many cases receive substantial campaign contributions and gifts of flights and hotel rooms from the corporations that stand to benefit from the introduction of ALEC model legislation -- have also been under fire from their constituents, who have expressed concern that their elected officials have become more accountable to special interests than the people in their district. At least 70 legislators have publicly dropped their ALEC membership in the past year and 117 ALEC member legislators lost their seats in the 2012 elections.

ALEC has been around since 1973 but has never faced this level of scrutiny. In past decades, ALEC has successfully allowed corporate interests to advance an agenda to privatize everything from schools to prisons and to reshape state laws in the corporate mold, but with the public never knowing a particular bill originated from ALEC or was initially drafted by the same corporations that profit from its passage. 

Now that ALEC has been exposed, it has shifted into damage control mode -- not by making a case for why corporate influence over politics is a good thing, but by covering its tracks and attacking its critics.

Damage Control and Coverups

ALEC is seeking to scrub its history of reactionary proposals at this week's meeting but the damage control effort has been underway for months.

In April 2012, ALEC claimed to disband the task force responsible for its most controversial legislation -- such as Stand Your Ground, voter suppression, and anti-immigrant bills -- purportedly to focus exclusively on "economic" issues. At its July 2012 meeting, ALEC pledged to expand membership among"underrepresented segments," perhaps in response to critiques that ALEC laws disproportionately impact people of color, despite the vast majority of ALEC members being white.

The organization has also taken steps to cloak their activities in even greater secrecy. Instead of sending legislators proposed model bills and meeting agendas through an email that might be released through an open records request, ALEC is now sending its members a link, which expires within 72 hours, to an Internet drop box where they can access the relevant documents, in an attempt to conceal these records from the public. Many ALEC legislators are also corresponding with the organization through personal email accounts (like Gmail or Yahoo) in an apparent effort to evade state open records laws; in Wisconsin, the Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause had to file a lawsuit to gain access to these public records and prevailed.

ALEC has also been using a public relations firm to investigate public interest groups asking questions about ALEC’s activities. ALEC has sent multiple emails to its legislative members attacking the character of its critics -- but notably failing to respond to the content of their critiques.  

Echoes of Trayvon Martin Tragedy Reverberate

As the organization gathers this week at the Grand Hyatt Washington, echoes of the Trayvon Martin tragedy are again reverberating in Florida, with another African-American 17-year-old shot dead and his killer seeking to avoid responsibility by invoking the ALEC-ratified, National Rifle Association-sponsored Stand Your Ground law.

On Friday, 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis was sitting in a car with friends when 45-year-old Michael David Dunn confronted the group for playing their music too loud. Dunn then fired nine shots into the car after "there were words exchanged." None of the teenagers were armed, but Dunn said he felt "threatened" and plans to invoke the state's Stand Your Ground law at trial. As was the case with the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the victim was African-American and the shooter was not. 

The shooting comes just weeks after a panel appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott to review the Stand Your Ground law endorsed the legislation, ignoring empirical evidence showing the laws correspond with an increase in homicides. Half of the lawmakers on the panel are ALEC members.  

At this week's meeting ALEC will try to purge its library of its most controversial model bills. But in many states the damage has already been done. To truly repair the organization's reputation, ALEC legislators should go a step further and start to repeal the laws, like Stand Your Ground, that have already caused so much harm. 

Brendan Fischer is general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, publisher of PR Watch.

 
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