By Steven Greenhut
SACRAMENTO — A cadre of liberal groups has decided the scourge of the nation is a little-known conservative organization that provides model legislation to state legislators across the country.
Overheated criticisms of the American Legislative Exchange Council have been echoed throughout the media following the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla., because ALEC had advocated the “Stand Your Ground” laws that anti-gun-rights activists blame for the tragic shooting.
The public rap against ALEC is that, as the Atlantic magazine recently explained, “[I]t’s a shadowy back-room arrangement where corporations pay good money to get friendly legislators to introduce pre-packaged bills in state houses across the country.”
Atlantic highlights ALEC Exposed, a group run by a former Justice Department official who created a wiki site spotlighting more than 800 bills that emanated from the supposed ALEC star chamber. Other groups, including a conspiracy-minded outfit that claims ALEC’s efforts to battle voter fraud are designed to keep black people from voting, have been strong-arming corporate sponsors into abandoning ALEC. Given the backbone-challenged nature of corporate America when it comes to political matters, it’s no surprise the scare tactics are working.
Even ALEC this week announced it is backing away from gun rights and social issues and focusing entirely on free-market economic and business issues. I agree with that decision and personally find “Stand Your Ground” laws to be misguided despite my strong support for gun rights, but it’s too bad these reasonable changes — ones that will bolster the organization in the long run — came across as capitulation. That will only embolden ALEC’s enemies. And those enemies have few good arguments, which is why they spin their conspiratorial yarns and try to make it seem as if ALEC is doing something unethical or unconventional. These leftist critics don’t like ALEC simply because ALEC advocates policies they oppose.
ALEC’s structure isn’t that different from the one taken by “mainstream” organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures, whose foundation includes donors of at least $25,000 that’s a who’s who of corporate America: AT&T, Walmart, Visa, Time Warner Cable, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals. These donors include the National Education Association, which is a prominent labor union.
Even worse, NCSL uses taxpayer dollars to fund many of its activities, which is something ALEC most definitely does not use. NCSL takes positions on issues. It champions itself as a nonpartisan forum for legislators to debate issues, but many critics recognize its left-of-center tilt.
“A number of Utah lawmakers are so upset at the liberal tendencies of the National Conference of State Legislatures they are thinking of picking up their marbles and going home,” wrote the Salt-Lake Tribune’s Paul Rolly in a 2009 column. Delegations from other states expressed similar concerns.
“Between the Senate and the House, the Utah Legislature pays about $100,000 in dues annually to the NCSL,” Rolly added. “Some lawmakers now are saying that money could be better spent. They’re also taking a harder look at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), as an alternative national association for legislators who traditionally takes conservative and pro-business stands on most issues.”
ALEC clearly has grown as an alternative to this group. As is often the case, so-called mainstream trade associations and organizations almost always tilt in a liberal direction, even while claiming to be fair-minded and nonpartisan. It’s not surprising that government-funded organizations end up promoting more government funding and rarely push for reforms to roll back the size of government.
I find this so often in so many spheres. The National League of Cities and its state chapters instantly jump to mind. They dominate the urban-related agenda in most capitols, but that group’s priorities are skewed hard to the left, as the group favors bigger government, controversial urban redevelopment policies and allowed the massive pension increases of the past decade to explode without complaint. I know of more conservative city officials who have talked about coming up with an alternative that researches and advances free-market-friendly issues rather than jumping on board the big-government status quo. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that how our system is designed to operate?
Since when is it awful to create a privately funded organization that advances constructive policy ideas? It’s far better to have corporate sponsors voluntarily pay for the group than to force the rest of us to pay for it through our tax dollars, which is how NCSL and many other organizations operate. Why aren’t activists targeting agenda-driven groups that live off of taxpayer dollars? We know the answer — they agree with those groups’ agenda and disagree with the agenda of conservative alternative organizations such as ALEC.
By the way, Atlantic and other critics can complain about “pre-packaged conservative legislation,” but interest groups from the left and right often promote model legislation. It’s a good way to get policy preferences in play. This isn’t nefarious. Consider also that lobbyists often write bills on behalf of legislators. We know that members of Congress rarely read the bills they vote upon, even on hugely significant matters such as national health-care policy. What ALEC does is far less nefarious than the standard operating procedure in the U.S. Capitol and state capitols.
Leftists don’t like the policies ALEC promotes, so they are using intimidation tactics to shut it down. It’s that simple. They are within their rights to do this, but let’s at least recognize that it flows not from any problem with how ALEC operates, but from the most transparent political motives.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento, Calif.