ALEC is Back and Ready to Resume its Conservative Agenda

Damaged by public-relations disasters, the free-market policy group was empowered last month by Republican statehouse victories.

A voter walks past a sign pointing the way to The Coliseum where a polling station is setup on November 4, 2014 in St Petersburg, United States.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

About 500 state legislators from across the country will pour themselves cups of coffee and file into conference rooms of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Washington on Wednesday to talk about cutting taxes and killing regulations. This is Legislating 101, brought to you by corporate America. 

The people's representatives are melding minds with corporate executives and lobbyists during the next three days at a free-market policy summit put on by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. They'll get Republican pep talks from Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn. They'll duck into breakout sessions like the one titled “States are 'Separate and Independent Sovereigns.' Now It's Time to Act Like It.” And they'll pass around already-drafted, insert-your-state-name-here legislation, proposals that often benefit the companies that pay ALEC dues of up to $25,000. 

ALEC has had some rough years of late. Dozens of its private sector members—Microsoft, Facebook and Google, among them—recently cut ties over its push to dismantle or block pollution regulations. Those companies followed a prior exodus of corporate backers that was touched off by a trove of internal documents that became public in 2011. More bad P.R. arrived in 2012 following the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. ALEC, it was learned, had helped draft stand-your-ground laws in Florida and other states that many believed served as the justification for the shooting. ALEC's 2013 revenue was $7.3 million, about $1 million less than the year before, tax forms show. 

The November elections, however, are setting the stage for an ALEC resurgence.

Republicans now control the legislatures of 31 states, having just wrested chambers in nine from Democratic hands. Twenty-four of those states also have Republican governors, giving a clear pathway for ALEC-friendly proposals. Sensing opportunity for growth, the 41-year-old organization is building a side project for municipal leaders called the American City County Exchange. And even as it lost buy-in from tech giants, ALEC has signed on 29 new private sector members this year. “They see the value of being able to exchange ideas with legislators,” says ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling.

ALEC's lawmaker-members are everywhere. One-quarter of all state legislators belong (about 80 percent of whom are Republican). The Colorado Senate, which went Republican for the first time in six election cycles, is likely to elect ALEC board member Bill Cadman as its new leader. “We believe that government that governs least, governs best,” Cadman said in a statement after the election.

Eric Householder, ALEC's liaison to West Virginia, is in line for a leadership position in the House of Delegates now that his party holds both chambers. West Virginia's state legislature is under one-party rule for the first time in more than eight decades, and likely new Senate President Bill Cole said West Virginians can expect the legislature to advance bills that limit lawsuits, lift some regulations and, if the budget allows, cut taxes. “I believe what we've been offering for a number of years is a very business-friendly, job-creating agenda,” he told the Charlestone, W.V., Gazette. “I do not have all of the answers, but I do think we deserve to have an opportunity to advance that legislative agenda.”

Those are just the kind of ideas ALEC is ready to help with. A review of the summit agenda shows working groups on pension reform, fiscal policy and workers compensation, among other economic hot topics. There are policy workshops on balancing the budget and stopping welfare fraud.

There are no agenda items for gun rights or voter identification laws—or any other nakedly incendiary topic—and that's no accident. Meierling said the group has tried to jettison non-economic issues after the Martin-Zimmerman fallout. (Florida's stand-your-ground law, which empowered citizens to shoot if they feel threatened, was a “model bill” that ALEC shopped around to dozens of statehouses.) When it comes to environmental proposals, however, ALEC continues to court controversy. Oil and gas companies—Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy—have been some of ALEC's stalwart private sector members. Given that financial base and the group's free-market cheerleading, it's not surprising that it opposes mandates and subsidies for renewable energy. But departing members charge that ALEC goes further, aligning with climate change skeptics.

“We've certainly taken a hit from the attacks,” Meierling said, while insisting ALEC doesn't have any policies on climate change. There's even a workshop Thursday morning called “The Greening of Planet Earth.”

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