By Katya Szabados
(From CMD: This report was originally printed as the cover story in the March 2, 2004 edition of the Madison-based newspaper "The Wisconsinite," titled "Dr. No and the Spectre of ALEC." While written more than seven years ago, the story it tells about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its role in Wisconsin government is illuminating and remains relevant today.
The intervening years have seen ALEC become even more influential as Wisconsin's political divide has grown, particularly after Republicans gained control of all three branches of state government. Some of the players have stayed the same, despite the intervening years -- readers will recognize the Fitzgerald brothers, former Governor Tommy Thompson and an assembly member named Scott Walker.)
"Dr. No and the Spectre of ALEC."
The Wisconsinite, March 2, 2004
Imagine you are a state legislator. You got into politics because you want to do the right thing. There's a budget crunch on, and that means less money and more competition for it. There's a lot going on in your community, and the pressure is on to deliver for your constituents. The legislative session meets only five months out of the year, you don't get much help from aides, and you might even have a second job. Where can you turn for help?
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is one place a state legislator can turn. According to the organization, they are "a bipartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who share a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty." In fact, a recent study found that 85 percent of its more than 200 members in "senior leadership positions" are Republicans. ALEC promotes policies such as "free market environmentalism" and the privatization of services like education, prisons and health care.
Wisconsin's "school choice" programs, among the first in the nation, were staked out early on by ALEC. The Milwaukee program has been making headlines since its inception – most recently for the use of one voucher school's public monies to purchase luxury cars. The role of ALEC in the history of voucher legislation is not as well known, however. School vouchers came of age during the gubernatorial reign of Tommy Thompson. ALEC and the right wing foundations that it partners with -- among them the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) -- worked to transform the image of voucher programs from a desultory privatization scheme to a "progressive" policy that gives students from low-income families a chance to get a better education.
"The strongest link [between ALEC and Wisconsin education and welfare policy] comes from ALEC itself, which held out Wisconsin Works and PAVE (People Against a Violent Environment) as models for the rest of the country," said Erin O'Neill of Public Trust Partnership. Public Trust is a nonprofit collaborative of public interest advocacy organizations that seeks to alert citizens to the influence of right-wing and corporate interests in state policymaking. "They have had model legislation on the issue for years."
Time-Saver for Legislators?
Time, like money, is something many state employees lack. ALEC publications and its Web site offer time-crunched, aide-deficient legislators handy information packages that include talking points and research data as ammunition to defend the positions they take.
"We support legislative members that don't have enough staff," said ALEC Director of Public Affairs Joe Rinzeo. "ALEC is not a lobbying group; it promotes model legislation throughout the states." Indeed. ALEC promotes model legislation that advances its mission via nine task forces that mirror state and federal government branches, such as the Health and Human Services Task Force, and the Criminal Justice Task Force. Each is co-chaired by a private sector member and a state legislative member, and they convene several times each year to draft "model legislation" that legislators can introduce in their home states. A new "Terrorism Task Force," currently under construction, will be co-chaired by Wisconsin Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford).
Corporate-Sponsored ALEC Conferences
ALEC also holds member conferences each year. Taxpayers often foot the bill for legislator travel and lodging expenses for these events. They are written off as travel related to legislative duties, as in the cases of Wisconsin ALEC members Sen. Robert Welch (R-Redgranite) and Rep. Frank Lasee (R-Bellevue). Others make their way to ALEC meetings via "scholarships" paid for by corporate lobbyists or corporate representatives, as reported in Sen. Neal Kedzie's (R-Elkhorn) 2001 financial disclosure statement. According to an ALEC expose titled, "Corporate America's Trojan Horse," coauthored by the National Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, this can verge on violations of state ethics laws when corporate interests are paying to meet with particular legislators.
Tommy Thompson, nicknamed Dr. No due to his opposition to Democratic legislation, once remarked of his ALEC experiences as a state representative that, "myself, I always loved going to these meetings because I always found new ideas. Then I'd take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that 'It's mine.' "
Corporations Pay Dues and Vote
While legislative and corporate members appear to have equal power in ALEC meetings and bill drafting, they don't pay the same to play. Legislator members pay $50 for a two year membership and participate in task force duties for free. Corporate members pay $5,000 to $50,000 annually for membership, plus $1500 to $5,000 extra to sit on an ALEC task force. State legislator membership dues rarely account for more than one percent of ALEC annual revenues.
No model legislation is approved unless agreed to by the task force's corporate members and the ALEC board of directors, also consisting of private and public members. To help legislators to see things their way, the corporate members often pay extra to wine and dine public officials at ALEC conferences and offer industry-funded studies to back their views. ALEC itself also produces research reports on key issues. Here's the real kicker: task force corporate members have an undeniable interest in the bills that they craft. For example, the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison organization, sat on ALEC's Criminal Justice Task force when it drafted model legislation for "three strikes" and "minimum sentencing" -- laws to keep convicted criminals in prison longer. The private sector co-chair of ALEC's "Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture" task force is a representative for ASARCO Inc., one of world's largest strip mining companies.
Meanwhile, legislative members often take the studies home to justify introducing model legislation in their state. Sen. Welch recently announced that he believes Wisconsin could be spending less per pupil in Wisconsin schools and achieve the same good results. The figures come from ALEC's Oct. report, "The report on American Education: A state-by-state analysis." Until he announced his candidacy in the 2004 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Welch was ALEC's Wisconsin State Chair and National Director. According to his own financial statements, he received at least $11,000 from ALEC between 1996 and 2002. Sen. Welch did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
ALEC and the Bush Administration
While ALEC may be unfamiliar to many Americans, it's no stranger to the current administration. The organization has hosted a number of distinguished speakers at its conferences, including U.S Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Vice President Dick Cheney and representatives from the American Enterprise Institute, ExxonMobil and the Chlorine Chemical Council. Wisconsin State Rep. Scott Suder, co-chair of ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force, recently traveled to Washington to meet with President Bush and others to discuss homeland security issues.
"These are ALEC alumni," said Andrew Gussert, the director of the Madison-based American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE). According to him, "they came back to ALEC because it gave them a lot of political and business connections" as they assumed prominent positions. ALICE, an online clearinghouse for environmental and labor friendly policymaking, is one of several groups, including the Public Trust Partnership and the Madison-based State Environmental Resource Center, that work to document ALEC influence.
ALEC was created by Kenoshan and right-wing guru Paul Weyrich, father of the Free Congress Foundation. It grew up during the Reagan and Bush I administrations, with 2,400 conservative legislative members from all fifty states by 1991, but truly matured in the Clinton era of "triangulation." Large corporations and their ideological allies, interested in privatization and deregulation and frightened by the threat of "liberal" influence in federal policymaking, poured huge amounts of money into the organization.
"ALEC started out as a right-wing moral majority organization," said Gussert. "But there's no money there. So fourteen years ago they started working for big business, and now they focus on policies that serve business interests."
"It's a Junket"
With public scrutiny over political ties to big corporations perhaps higher today than ever, you'd wonder why legislators would take the political risk in joining. "Money," says Gussert. "ALEC gets $6 million from corporate special interests -- that's not money regulated under lobbying guidelines." Gussert, who attended an ALEC meeting in Manhattan several years ago, witnessed the result firsthand: "Free backrubs, free tickets to the theater, free day care, free golf, free trips to exciting places ... it's a junket."
ALEC is good at what it does. According to one of their publications, "during the 1999-2000 legislative cycle, ALEC legislators introduced more than 3,100 pieces of legislation based on our models, and more than 450 of these were enacted."
Why Should You Care?
Why should you care? Because despite Wisconsin's progressive label, ALEC is hugely influential in state politics. Under former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state blazed trails in welfare reform, school choice and truth-in-sentencing legislation -- all programs that ALEC has advocated through reports and model legislation. Corporate member Corrections Corporation of America houses at least 3,000 Wisconsin inmates in out of- state private prisons. State Rep. Scott Walker (R-Wauwatosa), sponsor of Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing laws, was a member when he introduced the legislation, and claims to have relied on figures in an ALEC report to make his case.
Most recently, one model bill that has raised eyebrows is the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act," introduced in Texas, Pennsylvania, Maine and New York. The bill makes environmental protest a crime and increases penalties for animal rights or environmental groups that participate in activities "with an intent to influence a governmental entity or the public to take a specific action." Wisconsin is also considered a "target state" for this model bill.
Wisconsin is ALEC Testing Ground
"There are some states that become the testing ground for a lot of ALEC'S model bills," said Erin O'Neill. "Wisconsin, together with Colorado, Florida, Texas and a few others, is one of them."
Why? "Wisconsin is the quintessential swing state; it flipped parties seven times in 12 years," says Gussert. "We are independent more than we are liberal. We're ready to embrace innovative policy whether it's conservative or progressive."
Today, several ALEC-based bills are winding their way through the state legislature. Among them, Senate Bill 49, introduced by Sen. Welch, is intended to modify state rules of evidence in trial cases regarding the admissibility of expert witness testimony, and is based on the ALEC model "Verifiable Science Act." Opponents charge that the bill makes it harder for the state to hold corporations accountable for actions that threaten human and environmental health. SB 49 passed the Senate in early February, and has received little media attention.
Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR)
ALEC member Rep. Frank Lasee's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), on the other hand, has been picking up media steam lately with a slew of op-eds both for and against in various publications. Authors and co-sponsors of TABOR read like a who's who of Wisconsin ALEC members; Senators Welch, Fitzgerald, and Lasee and State Reps. Suder, Ladwig, Kreibich, Jensen, Bies and Nass, all Republicans. The bill calls for a constitutional amendment, requiring passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and voter approval via referendum.
TABOR would limit government spending to growth in population plus growth in inflation and require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature to increase income, sales and franchise taxes. Wisconsin voters would need to approve tax increases or lift spending limits via referendum. The bill would establish a "rainy day" fund and send all surpluses directly back to taxpayers.
Wisconsin's TABOR is said to be based on a 1992 constitutional amendment in Colorado. Lasee and his supporters aren't so quick to point out, however, that the bill is a conglomeration of two ALEC model bills. ALEC's "Super Majority Act" proposes to require a 2/3 majority to raise taxes. Its "Tax Expenditure and Limitation Act" limits spending to growth plus inflation, establishes a rainy day fund and requires revenues to be returned to taxpayers.
TABOR proponents claim it will make state government more accountable to the people and streamline state agencies, pushing them to be more efficient with less money. Lasee claims it is "the essence of Democracy" and "will require that elected officials explain what they're doing more often to the people they represent." TABOR advocate and Milwaukee radio maven Charlie Sykes, in an essay from WPRI titled "After the Freeze," argues that the measure would relieve the state's "tax hell status" and make it more competitive and welcoming to business and investors.
Opponents worry it could tie the hands of government faced with already tight budgets, leading to cuts in public services dear to Wisconsinites. Colorado officials, even some of those who advocated or voted for the legislation, are warning Wisconsin citizens to beware.
Colorado's TABOR Experience
According to Phyllis Resnick from the Tax Center at the University of Denver, many companies consider Colorado "a nightmare to do business with" because of variable tax rates between counties. Wade Buchanan, President of the Colorado-based Bell Policy Center, a nonprofit public interest center, recently penned an anti- TABOR op-ed for the Wisconsin State Journal. In it, he concedes that TABOR sounds like a good idea, and that the majority of Colorado citizens agree with its primary tenants of limiting government expenditures and allowing citizens to approve tax increases.
However, Buchanan writes that TABOR "has shrunk Colorado's already-lean programs to anorexic levels. By 2000, Colorado had fallen to 50th in K-12 spending per $1,000 of personal income...spent less than most other states on public health care services (as a percent of GSP), was at the bottom in on-time immunization rates, was at the bottom in prenatal care, had the highest rate of uninsured low-income children in the nation, was almost last among states in high school graduation rates, ranked almost last in state investment in higher education and the arts, and had a growing list of unfunded highway projects." According to Buchanan, this occurred because, although personal income has grown since 1992, Colorado officials are faced with strict spending limits in the face of massive population growth along the Front Range. Higher incomes households are making enough to ignore cuts in public services, while the less wealthy are having a harder time.
Sen. Welch wants to add a "mandate relief act" to the TABOR legislation to encourage local governments to endorse the bill. This would make it unconstitutional for the state government or courts to mandate anything to state or local governments without fully funding it. ALEC calls it the "State Payments for State Mandates Act."
The Republican push to relieve local governments of unfunded mandates is ironic in the wake of the party's recent support for the concealed weapons bill. That bill, which Gov. Doyle vetoed and the legislature failed to override, would have mandated a slew of new costs and duties to local governments and law enforcement agencies.
Sykes, in his pro-TABOR piece, warns that "Wisconsin's Iron Triangle - the bureaucracies with a vested interest in spending, special interest advocacy groups, and the news media - can be expected to paint the direst picture of devastated services and destitute schools." He doesn't address the fact that TABOR advocates may have special interests of their own.
Public vs. Private Interests
"There's a moral component to government that protects the interests of people, and ALEC wants to choke government services that suit their corporate interests," says Gussert. "ALEC uses the 'phone book test' – if you can find a service in a phone book, government shouldn't be doing it. The problem is that government has that moral component, while ALEC simply has a profit component."
"If I were a Wisconsin citizen, what I'd want to know is, why are corporate interests being put before public interests," says O'Neill. "I'd also want to know why ALEC legislators are introducing bills that are being written by corporations. How can they protect working families and ensure livable environments when they are letting corporations re-write the laws that regulate them?"
Find out more about ALEC at the Center for Media and Democracy's ALEC Exposed website.