Tuesday, April 10th, 2012
Recently the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. made news when four of its major corporate members — Kraft, Coca-cola, McDonald’s, and Intuit — announced they were dropping out. The Gates Foundation, a private philanthropic organization run by Bill and Melinda Gates, announced it would no longer award grants to ALEC.
But what is ALEC, and why are corporations leaving it?
ALEC calls itself a “membership association of state legislators.” However, almost all of its funds come from corporate sponsors, not legislator member dues. Since its founding in 1973, ALEC has helped to get bills favoring conservative causes passed in state legislatures. But it is not exactly a lobbying group. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say you are a widget manufacturer, and you want state laws changed that will make your company more profitable. For example, you might want looser environmental regulations, or you want laws that shield you from liability if one of your widgets hurts somebody.
If your company is a member of ALEC, you can write your own model bills and persuade the state lawmakers who are also members to introduce those bills in their state congresses. The lawmakers often are invited to conferences at luxury resorts where an ALEC team hands them packets of model bills and teaches them how to sell the bills to the folks back home.
Adam Sorensen wrote in Time magazine, “Think of ALEC’s prepackaged and prelawyered legislation as Swanson TV dinners: all you need is a majority vote to reheat it, and it’s ready to serve.”
Now, there is nothing secret or illegal about this. But recently ALEC has been a little too successful. People started to notice that many identical, as in word for word, bills were being introduced in the nation’s statehouses. And many of these bills were controversial.
For example, ALEC bills have stripped unions of collective bargaining rights. Others have established strict voter ID requirements that may stop many citizens from being able to vote.
ALEC is a major source of the many “tort reform” laws passed by state legislatures in recent years. These laws make it harder for citizens to sue and collect damages when they are harmed by a faulty product or medical malpractice. These laws punish the most severely injured people by capping the amount of damages they can receive, regardless of the nature of their injuries. For example, people suffering from mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos, may not be able to collect enough damages to pay medical bills and provide for families.
Recently the governor of Minnesota vetoed four ALEC-written tort reform bills. “I’ve found that Minnesotans do not want their laws written by the lobbyists of big corporations,” Gov. Dayton said.
No one has accused Kraft or McDonald’s of trying to suppress voting rights. But threatened boycotts against corporate members of ALEC persuaded some CEOs that membership in ALEC wasn’t worth risking the good will of the public.