A little-known think tank called the American Legislative Exchange Council is getting some national attention for its involvement in Wisconsin politics.
The conservative-backed organization is gaining attention for authoring legislation pushed through state Legislatures around the country, including here in Wisconsin. Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican who represents Caledonia, is an active member, and Gov. Scott Walker is a former member of the group.
After conservatives recent successes in Wisconsin, liberals are working to raise ALEC's profile and make it an issue come election time.
John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times and contributor to The Nation and In These Times, wrote "ALEC Exposed" for The Nation. The article was posted online July 12, and is appearing in the Aug. 1-8 issue of the liberal magazine.
ALEC describes itself as the nation's "largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators." Critics like Nichols say the group, which has legislators and corporate representatives working together on political issues, has a direct pipeline to push legislation through at the state level.
In his piece for The Nation, Nichols said ALEC's priorities for 2011 "included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, pass voter ID laws and more."
Sound familiar? Walker is an alumnus of the group, Nichols reported.
Nichols reviewed leaked documents that showed what the group's model legislation looked like, and the investigation into them found that some passed legislation lifted text verbatim from the ALEC models. To see what came of the larger investigation into the leaked ALEC documents, click here.
Nichols told Gross corporate members of ALEC have the ability to veto proposals and ideas they don't like, and because of the reach of the group, the legislation that comes out of ALEC gets introduced in many states. He gave one example from Tennessee, where a newspaper "found a bill where the second half of it was verbatim from the ALEC model bill." He said that wasn't always the case, but that "the core concepts are there."
Nichols also said ALEC was smart to focus on the state level, rather than trying to get involved in Washington.
"We live at the local and state level. That's where human beings come into contact more often than not," he told Fresh Air. "We live today in a country where there's a Washington obsession, particularly by the media but also by the political class. … And yet, in most areas, it's not Washington that dictates the outlines, the parameters of our life. … And so if you come in at the state government level, you have a much greater ability to define how you're going to operate."
Fresh Air also checked in with ALEC, through Louisiana State Rep. Noble Ellington, a Republican and the national chairman of ALEC.
Ellington told Fresh Air that legislators—not corporations—approve the model legislation. "They (the corporations) don't have a vote. Legislators say [what is introduced]. … And then the legislators can introduce that legislation in [their] state."
He said while the working process "may not be transparent," because legislation is later taken by ALEC members to their respective state houses, the public does have a chance to give input and talk to their legislators "so I don't see how you can get more transparent than that."
He told Terry Gross that it is important to give corporations the chance to participate in the drafting process "partly because they're one of the ones who will be affected by it," but cautioned that they don't get final say over what comes out of ALEC as model legislation.
When Gross asked him about ALEC's inclusion of business interests over the general public at the table, Ellington said that the legislators represent those interests.
Wanggaard's press secretary compared ALEC with the National Conference of State Legislators, and in a commentary that ran in The Journal Times, Vos said this was "a made-up issue."
Want to read more about ALEC and its role in Wisconsin politics?
- Eye On Wisconsin: ALEC Emails Are Revealing, from March 27, 2011
- Scholar Citizen: Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here), from March 15, 2011
- Journal Sentinel: Bail group touts job potential, from June 18, 2011
- One Wisconsin Now: Wisconsin senators paying for membership in the American Legislative Exchange Committee with Wisconsin tax dollars (Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, is on the list). This was reportedly obtained by OneWisconsinNow.org through an open records request with the Office of the Wisconsin Senate Chief Clerk.
- Fresh Air with Terry Gross: Read a transcript of the Nichols interview; Read more about the Nichols interview and listen to the full radio interview; Read a transcript of the Ellington interview; Read more about the Ellington interview and listen to the full radio interview