By Joe Kendo
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) empowers America’s largest corporations in their efforts to co-opt state lawmakers and drive through a 50-state corporatist agenda. As the Legislative and Policy Director of the WA State Labor Council, I see the impact of ALEC everyday during the legislative sessions.
ALEC is a bill mill – an organization that brings policy makers together to brainstorm and develop model legislation that elected officials bring back to their communities. At first glance, there’s nothing necessarily nasty about this process, and there are other organizations that facilitate this kind of idea sharing. National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) also brings lawmakers together to share legislative ideas, but there’s really no comparison. NCSL empowers idea sharing, and ALEC empowers corporations; NCSL mandates bi-partisan leadership, while ALEC puts corporate players in control of public policy.
What makes ALEC and its model legislation so disturbing is that good public policy in the interest of the people is set aside in favor of legislation that pits the interests of the states against the desires of the wealthiest corporations in the country. At ALEC, each of its nine policy committees are co-chaired by representatives of big business, so it is no surprise that the results of these “intellectual exchanges” are bills that promote the degradation of environmental protections, the elimination of workers’ bargaining rights, the refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, block granting Medicare, and the privatization of Social Security.
The so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, with vociferous support of the fire-arms industry, are a direct result of this disturbing alliance between corporate America and the elected leaders who are supposed to keep our communities safe. ALEC also proudly touts tort reform in an effort to limit damages that tobacco companies must pay for decades of social misdeeds and immoral advertising aimed at addicting generation after generation to its harmful products.
Recently, a number of corporations including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even Occidental Petroleum have severed ties with the organization – big names to add to the growing list of over 80 corporations who have opted to split from the increasingly unpopular legislative exchange. Some of the proposals from ALEC have become embarrassing and/or a public relations nightmare for these corporations. It is important, however, to note at some point these corporations were interested enough in supporting ALEC that they paid tens of thousands of dollars to influence the direction of the organization.
The majority of Washingtonians are negatively impacted by the efforts of ALEC and its allies. As part of the Koch Brothers’ nationwide think-tank funding scheme, groups like the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation embrace ALEC legislation and get their legislative allies to introduce bills that attack labor unions, labor rights, and environmental and community group efforts to make our state a better place for working families, kids, and seniors.
During the 2014 Legislative Session, five ALEC bills were introduced by Republican state senators, and championed by the Freedom Foundation. This legislation would have weakened and defunded labor organizations representing public servants. Fire fighters, police officers, public health nurses, and utility workers would all have been harmed had these ALEC bills found their way into our laws.
As ALEC and its allies like the Freedom Foundation continue to press hard for laws aimed at harming working families and our environment, the public is coming to better understand the implications of a country governed by this legislative nihilism. Google, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola didn’t leave ALEC because they had a change of heart; they left ALEC because the people that make them rich, consumers like you and me, were outraged and said something. And as ALEC and their local incarnations identify new targets for their bill peddling – like the small towns of Blaine, Chelan, Sequim, and Shelton – it is even more important that our communities stay informed and remain vigilant.
So, what can YOU do to push back against this bill mill? It’s simple. ALEC only works if elected leaders carry their water, and this isn’t a problem limited to conservatives in Olympia. A handful of state Democrats have been ALEC members in the past, though they have cut their ties due to the poisonous association and outrage expressed by their constituents. That’s the key. When you’re communicating with elected leaders, especially if you are from a rural or more conservative community, ask if they will stand against ALEC and its ideological allies. Be sure that they know you’re an informed member of their community and that it’s the community’s values they should be championing, not those of Philip Morris, Exxon Mobil, and Koch Industries. It’s true that they have the money, but when you act, you’re the one who has the power.
Joe Kendo is the Legislative and Policy Director at the Washington State Labor Council and a proud member of PSARA.