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Creating a Right-Wing Nation, State by State

A couple of staffers for People for the American Way went undercover to a conference of the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. Here's what they discovered.
 
 
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We've heard much talk of the states serving as "progressive laboratories" in recent years. But conservatives have been working to shape state laws for the past 30 years. The center of gravity for that effort is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation's largest network of state legislators.

Founded in 1973, ALEC was the brainchild of paleocon Paul Weyrich, a leading "Movement conservative" and the head of the Free Congress Foundation (in 1973 Weyrich also co-founded the Heritage Foundation). It is the connective tissue that links state legislators with right-wing think tanks, leading anti-tax activists and corporate money. ALEC is a public-policy mill that churns out "model legislation" for the states that are unfailingly pro-business. The organization fights against civil rights laws, as well as consumer, labor and environmental initiatives.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, corporations "funnel cash through ALEC to curry favor with state lawmakers through junkets and other largesse in the hopes of enacting special interest legislation -- all the while keeping safely outside the public eye."

Corporations that support ALEC "pay to play." In addition to dues of up to $50,000 dollars per year, they also pay as much as $5,000 dollars to sit on the "task force" committees that draft ALEC's legislative templates. You pay, and you get to write state laws to your exquisite advantage.

ALEC's record of achievement makes it one of the most successful parts of the conservative movement, but many progressives aren't aware of it. They should be; ALEC claims as members 34 state Speakers of The House, 25 Senate Presidents, 31 Senate Leaders and 33 House Leaders.

Given that ALEC claims to have successfully passed 200 bills into law in 2003, keeping tabs on the organization is a good way to get a handle on where the right will train its sights next.

Two staffers for People For the American Way (PFAW) went to ALEC's August meeting to get that scoop. Earlier this month I attended a conference of labor and community activists in Washington, D.C. to hear a summary of what PFAW's staffers picked up at the summit. This report draws heavily on their work, for which I'm grateful (disclosure: during the past year I've received modest support from PFAW for some of my own activism, and I'm an honorary Fellow with its Young People For program).

On The Horizon

For the most part, there were few surprises at ALEC's August summit in Plano, Texas. The usual suspects pushed policies we have come to expect from the conservative movement. These, according to a profile by PFAW, include "rolling back civil rights, challenging government restrictions on corporate pollution," as well as "limiting government regulations of commerce [and] privatizing public services."

George W. Bush was the keynote speaker, discussing how successful his tax cuts have been (if you care to, you can read his speech here). Grover Norquist, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich rounded out the right's star power. (According to one of PFAW's observers, Norquist told a room full of legislators that "those on the left aren't stupid, they're evil.")

The main messages were that public pensions and Social Security should be privatized and Bush's tax cuts should become permanent (clearly a federal issue, but they pushed it nonetheless). Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings defended No child Left behind, which she argued wasn't "just good policy, it's good politics."

School vouchers -- a long-standing objective of ALEC -- were high on the agenda. There were two pieces of model legislation that advance vouchers. Related are the "Virtual Public Schools Act" and "The Family Tax Credit Program Act." Both are alternatives to public education that, unlike vouchers programs, divert public education funds to home-schooled children as well as those enrolled in private schools. Apparently it is, among other things, a sop to Christian conservatives.

Much was made of the need for "tort reform." There was talk of "judicial hellholes," where pesky consumer groups and environmentalists were "regulating" through litigation - ALEC's members call it a "tax on the consumer" -- and of limiting damage awards and "reforming" class-action suits.

Most of ALEC's model legislation sounds eminently reasonable at first glance. One initiative, the "Jury Patriotism Act" -- already passed in 13 states -- makes it more difficult for people to skip jury duty, but would also increase the amount paid to jurors, especially low-income jurors serving on long cases. That sounds like a good idea until you come to the fine print: the increased jury pay wouldn't come from general revenues, but from significantly increased fees required to bring suit, closing the courthouse doors to a growing number of people.

Another go-to issue for ALEC's members is the environment. In 2002, the organization issued a widely read report, "Global Warming and the Kyoto Protocol: Paper Tiger, Economic Dragon" [ PDF], written by the CATO institute's "climate skeptic" Patrick Michaels. Exxon - the leading funder of efforts to "debunk" climatology - donated almost one million dollars to ALEC since 1998, according to ExxonWatch. Dupont, Dow and Edison electric are among the other firms that have paid millions to write ALEC's model legislation.

Some of ALEC's environmental initiatives include "environmental audit immunity" ( wonky PDF), a legal regime whereby polluters could self-regulate and any environmental violations could not be punished as long as they inform the EPA of the damage done.

Another is attacking state and regional limits on greenhouse gas emissions. ALEC has fought what have been called "sons of Kyoto" state laws tooth and nail, calling global warming "the new mantra for environmentalists and non-governmental organizations in their quest to redistribute international and domestic wealth."

Perhaps the most troubling of ALEC's environmental aims is criminalizing activism. Its model "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" does just that. As Karen Charman wrote on TomPaine:

The Texas [version of the] bill defines an "animal rights or terrorist organization" as "two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or ... natural resources." The bill adds that "'Political motivation' means an intent to influence a government entity or the public to take a specific political action." Language in the New York bill is similarly broad.

The Center for Constitutional Rights' Michael Ratner told Charman, "The definitional sections of this legislation are so broad that they sweep within them basically every environmental and animal-rights organization in the country."

Activism clearly frightens the big-business right. Aside from the over-the-top hostility towards environmental activists, there was much talk of campaigns such as the current effort - of which AlterNet has played a part -- to raise awareness of Wal-Mart's labor and environmental practices, and the harm the firm inflicts on Main Street America.

A panel on socially responsible investing likened the practice to a new form of Marxism. According to PFAW's observers, the moderator argued that "progressives control campuses, control foundations, control the media -- corporations are the last bastion of conservatism and if they take them over, it's game over."

A PLAN for Push-Back

The good news is that ALEC is not unopposed by groups on the left. Established organizations like USPIRG and the Center for Policy Alternatives offer progressive model legislation to state lawmakers, and community and labor activists have worked to shine a hard light on ALEC and its proposals.

But as is often the case, many of these efforts are single-issue, as opposed to ALEC's broad ideological umbrella of positions, and too often they act state-by-state instead of working as well-coordinated nationwide networks.

That's beginning to change. ALICE (the American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange) is trying to create a similarly broad network at the local level. A collaboration of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the Economic Analysis and Research Network and several other progressive groups, ALICE is a clearinghouse of information and legislation that's trying to back up tens of thousands of progressives in local government.

Another organization that's promising -perhaps the most ambitious of its kind -- is the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN). Launched with much fanfare in August and co-chaired by the Center for American Progress' David Sirota and former Montana legislator Steve Doherty, PLAN most resembles the structure of ALEC. It not only provides model legislation across state and issue lines, it also helps push those bills by joining grass-roots activists and state lawmakers with the "strategic advocacy tools" they need to advance "progressive economic and social policies."

Stay tuned.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.