In an apparent nod to public pressure and the exodus of corporate members like Coca-Cola and Kraft, the American Legislative Exchange Council last week announced it was getting out of the guns and ballots game.
The organization — better known as ALEC — said it was eliminating its Public Safety and Elections task force in order to “sharpen [its] focus on jobs, free markets and growth.” Unmentioned was that task force’s fundamental involvement in the spate of new voter requirements and gun laws being pushed through state legislatures around the country.
As an arm of ALEC, the task force birthed gun legislation like the “Castle Doctrine” and “Stand Your Ground” laws, as well as voter-ID requirements, all of which have passed and become law in recent years in Tennessee.
The group’s brochure definition describes an innocuous effort to advance the principles of free markets and limited government through a public-private partnership. But critics see a shadowy conservative legislation-factory that gives corporations undue power and influence.
For $7,000 to $25,000 a year, business interests can obtain a membership with varying degrees of access to legislators and events. State legislators can join for $50 a year and some, in Wisconsin for example, have been caught using taxpayer dollars to pay the fee.
Legislators and corporate representatives alike can then join any number of task forces, where the two groups discuss and create model legislation that is then made available for legislators around the country to download and introduce in their state’s legislature.
After an anonymous whistleblower leaked some 800 of ALEC’s model bills to the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, it’s more easily recognized as the force behind various legislative weather patterns, like the expanding gun rights and voter requirements, which it now says it will abandon, as well as the tort, education and union-focused bills it will presumably continue to push.
The occasional mishap has helped too. In January, Florida Republican state Rep. Rachel Burgin mistakenly revealed her use of an ALEC bill, when she forgot to remove their name from the preamble of a resolution urging Congress to reduce the federal corporate tax rate.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, there are 44 Tennessee state legislators with ties to ALEC. The largely Republican list includes the highest-ranking Republican leadership in both chambers of the legislature, but it also names five Democrats.
On a board of directors made up of 15 legislators — with eight more serving on an executive board — two are Republicans from Tennessee: Rep. Steve McDaniel, who has been an ALEC member since 1989, and Rep. Curry Todd, who serves as the state’s public sector chairman.
Each state has a public and private chairperson. Tennessee’s private sector chair is Patricia Cannon. She was formerly the director of state government affairs for pharmaceutical corporation Allergan Inc. According to her LinkedIn profile, she now holds the same position at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.
Todd could not be reached for comment and phone calls and emails to an ALEC spokesman were not returned.
After ALEC’s announcement, the group sent out a statement attributed to McDaniel in which he applauded the decision to “refocus [their] efforts.” In an interview with The City Paper, he confirmed his position with the organization as well as Todd’s and Cannon’s. Not surprisingly, his view of ALEC is unfailingly positive.
“Because I believe in the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, personal responsibility and all those things, I think that business ought to be involved with coming up with legislation,” he said. “If you don’t communicate with the people who are creating the jobs and who are being regulated by government, you don’t get a rounded full story of what’s going on. I think ALEC’s a good model to allow that to take place.”
McDaniel said he couldn’t point to a single ALEC bill this session and argued that even when model bills are used in the state, they’re often changed throughout the legislative process to a point where he wouldn’t call them “ALEC bills.”
Along with the aforementioned gun and voter-ID laws, watchdog groups have pointed out parts of the scientific education bill, which Gov. Bill Haslam recently allowed to pass into law without his signature, that mirror sections of an ALEC model bill. Indeed, some language from the model, focused on classroom discussions about climate change, can be found in legislation across the country.
But state legislators have not been prone to announcing the origins of their legislation — at least, not on purpose — and increased media attention doesn’t seem likely to change that. Last year, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner introduced a bill that would have required legislators to identify legislation that came from outside entities like ALEC or the Tennessee Eagle Forum. It quickly failed.
Throughout this session, Turner has pressed legislators — as he did Rep. Judd Matheny about an Eagle Forum-backed bill that would restrict the number of foreign workers in charter schools — about the groups behind the bills they’re pushing.
“A lot of what we’ve done here this year, a lot of the bills we have passed, I don’t know what it would be, but I dare to say, if you researched it, probably a good 25 percent of the bills that we’ve passed this year were from some outside entity,” he said.
Asked if groups like ALEC give an unfair advantage to wealthy corporations, McDaniel said he believes in his colleagues’ integrity.
“If a legislator can be bought ... most can’t,” he said. “Their vote can not be bought in any form or fashion. They’re going to do what they think is right for the people who sent them here. That’s the way I am, that’s the way all legislators I know are. It’s just like [when] some association gives you a campaign contribution. My door’s open to them and my door’s open to everybody to present their case.”
That raises the question, then: Why wouldn’t legislators disclose the unelected entities who craft the legislation they’re sponsoring? Although he didn’t bring his bill again this year, Turner said he’ll push it in the future.
“I’ll probably bring it back up,” he said. “But they’ll kill it.”