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After a Controversial Year, ALEC Convenes in Washington; Damage Control at Top of Agenda

No one should be fooled by ALEC's upcoming makeover.

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. 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 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, 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 November 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, ALEC  disbanded 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 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.