March 28th, 2011 | Connie Eyer
If it seems to you that recent union-busting bills introduced in states with Republican governors and majorities in legislatures are a bit too coordinated for it to be a coincidence, then you’d be right. Recent stories reported by The New York Times and National Public Radio have shone a light on the source of these bills: ALEC, short for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing group made up of state legislators and some of the country’s biggest corporations. According to ALEC’s website, the organization was founded in September 1973, by state legislators, including then Illinois State Rep. Henry Hyde, conservative activist Paul Weyrich, and Lou Barnett, a veteran of then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 1968 presidential campaign, amongst others.
NPR’s Laura Sullivan explained in her report how it works:
ALEC is a membership organization. State legislators pay $50 a year to belong. Private corporations can join, too. The tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and drug-maker Pfizer Inc. are among the members. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year. Tax records show that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year. With that money, the 28 people in the ALEC offices throw three annual conferences. The companies get to sit around a table and write “model bills” with the state legislators, who then take them home to their states.
While stressing that Republicans are not the only ones seeking to rein in unions, NYT notes that ALEC quietly spreads these pre-written proposals from state to state, sending e-mails about the latest efforts, as well as suggested legislative language. Michael Hough, director of ALEC’s commerce task force, however, said the aim of these measures was not political, but to reduce labor’s swollen power. “Government budgets have grown and grown because of the cost of employees’ pensions and salaries,” he said. “Now we have to deal with that.”
Anti-union legislation, it should also be noted, was not the only victory claimed by the council. NPR reported that one of those bills is now Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, SB 1070, which requires police to arrest anyone who cannot prove they entered the country legally when asked. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants could be locked up, and private prison companies stand to make millions. And, interestingly, the largest prison company in the country, the Corrections Corporation of America, was present when the model immigration legislation was drafted at an ALEC conference last year.
NPR quotes ALEC’s Bowman as saying that’s not unusual; more than 200 of the organization’s model bills became actual laws over the past year. But he hedges when asked if that means the unofficial drafting process is an effective way to accelerate the legislative process.
“It’s not an effective way to get a bill passed,” he says. “It’s an effective way to find good legislation.”
Are ALEC’s conferences lobbying? Bowman contends that what his group does is educate lawmakers. “ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss,” he stated in the NPR report. “You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They’re just trying to learn a policy and understand it.”