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How ALEC helps conservatives and businesses turn state election wins into new laws

Republicans have long been viewed as more effective than Democrats in pushing their policy priorities in state legislatures. One reason why? A group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, that has helped push state-level conservative proposals. ALEC has helped develop and popularize a host of ideas designed to benefit businesses, as well as the Stand Your Ground bills that became so controversial after Trayvon Martin's death — and it frequently manages to get its proposals enacted into law.

This year, Republicans control 30 state legislatures, and control one chamber in 8 more. So it's more important than ever to understand what ALEC actually is — and what it does.

1) What is ALEC?

Cheney ALEC award

Vice President Dick Cheney receives ALEC's Thomas Jefferson award in 2003. (Joe Raedle / Getty)

Essentially, ALEC is a group that helps craft and standardize various conservative and pro-business policies so they can be pushed in state legislatures across the country. It has facilitated collaboration among state legislators, businesses, and conservative think tanks and advocacy groups to craft many "model bills" — bills those legislators can then introduce in their home states, and perhaps get passed into law. In recent years, about 1,000 of ALEC's model bills have been introduced to state legislatures across the country, and around 200 usually become law, the group has estimated.

While ALEC is technically run by its state legislators, it raises the bulk of its yearly funding — around $8 million a year — from corporations and conservative groups or foundations. Accordingly, ALEC's model bills tend to reflect the business interests of those corporate members. In 2010, ALEC's policy director told NPR, "Most of the [model] bills are written by outside sources and companies, attorneys, [and legislative] counsels." The charitable interpretation of this is that ALEC helps policy experts and stakeholders share their knowledge with state legislators who might not have the legal expertise to write high-quality bills on their own. The more critical take is that ALEC is just helping state legislators more effectively do the bidding of corporate and conservative interests.

ALEC maintains that while it promotes these various model bills, it does not directly lobby state legislatures to pass them — insisting that it's a think tank rather than a lobbying operation. But according to a report by the New York Times' Mike McIntire, "special interests effectively turn ALEC's lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they should vote and collaborating on bills affecting hundreds of issues."

In recent years, about one quarter of US state legislators have been members of ALEC. But though the group advertises itself as a nonpartisan organization, all of its current officers and board members, and the vast majority of its dues-paying rank-and-file members, are Republican state legislators. While ALEC has been chaired by Democrats in the past, one of those former chairs, former Iowa representative Dolores Mertz, has since publicly blasted the group as overly partisan.

The upshot of this is that the group is most influential and successful in states with Republican-controlled legislatures and governor's mansions. ALEC doesn't elect Republicans to legislatures, but it gives the party, businesses, and conservatives a menu of potential bills to choose from once the GOP does gain power.

2) What policy positions does ALEC push?

ALEC asbestos model bill

One of ALEC's model bills, on asbestos claims. Click here for the full bill.

ALEC's main focus is promoting pro-business and conservative economic policies. It's organized into 9 main task forces run by state legislators that corporations or nonprofits can contribute to and participate in. Here are each of them, and examples of positions they back:

  1. Civil Justice (Tort reform)
  2. Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development (Opposition to minimum wage increases, right to workregulatory flexibility)
  3. Communications and Technology (Opposition to net neutrality, various other policies favored by large telecom companies)
  4. Education (School choice and education reform)
  5. Energy, Environment and Agriculture (Opposing EPA carbon regulationsopposing state renewable energy mandates)
  6. Health and Human Services (Repealing Obamacareblock granting Medicaid)
  7. International Relations (Promoting free tradesupporting the Keystone XL pipeline)
  8. Tax and Fiscal Policy (tax cutsoverhauls to public employee pensions)
  9. Justice Performance Project (various changes to state bail programs, decriminalization)

But ALEC has frequently been criticized for blurring the lines between bills intended to benefit business generally, and bills designed to help its particular corporate members.

For instance, the Washington Post's Anita Kumar reported that one ALEC member company, Crown Cork & Seal, helped craft a bill that would shield it from asbestos claims, and pushed it around the country. The version of that bill introduced in Virginia would have applied to only one company operating in the state — Crown Cork. It was pushed hard by Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William Howell (R) — and Howell's chief of staff told Kumar that he backed the bill because of his involvement in ALEC.

Another ALEC bill proposed to alter "the tax on smokeless tobacco products from one based on the price of the tobacco to one based on weight," according to Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Bice pointed out that ALEC member Altria (the former Philip Morris) would have benefited most from this, since "it manufactures smokeless tobacco products that are far lighter than those of other manufacturers."

3) Is ALEC just about business and economic issues?

Trayvon Martin protest in New York City

A New York City protest against the killing of Trayvon Martin, in 2012. (Allison Joyce / Getty)

ALEC's close ties to corporations and the economic policies it's pushed have been the source of some controversy. But the group was co-founded by social conservative activist Paul Weyrich, and it has also promoted model bills on gun rights, voter ID, and immigration that have been at the center of some of the biggest state controversies of the past few years. For instance:

  • Months before Arizona's legislature passed a tough anti-illegal immigration law in 2010, its lead sponsor introduced the bill at an ALEC meeting, and the group's Public Safety and Elections Task Force adopted it. The meeting included officials from the Corrections Corporation of America, which expected to benefit financially from increased detention of immigrants, according to NPR's Laura Sullivan.
  • ALEC has drafted and pushed voter ID laws, which critics say make voting more burdensome for minorities, the poor, and the elderly.
  • After Florida legislators passed the nation's first "Stand Your Ground" law in 2005, ALEC collaborated with the NRA to promote the law nationwide. Since 2005, more than 30 states have enacted some version of Stand Your Ground, according to the Washington Post.
In 2012, the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin brought nationwide attention to Stand Your Ground laws — and ALEC's role in promoting them came under scrutiny. Liberal groups like Color of Change campaigned to get corporations to pull their funding from ALEC — focusing on both Stand Your Ground and voter ID — and leaks of documents from the group that had begun the previous year, to progressive organizations like the Center for Media and Democracy, continued.

The ensuing controversy severely hurt ALEC. Its various corporate funders, and its few conservative Democrat members, had joined the group for economic and business issues, not to get tarred with hot-button national controversies. According to internal documents obtained by the Guardian's Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg, ALEC lost nearly 400 state legislators and 64 corporate members between 2011 and 2013. The Center for Media and Democracy lists many companies that have reportedly cut ties to the group — including Amazon, General Electric, Pepsi, McDonald's, Merck, General Motors, Microsoft, and Walgreens.

In an apparent attempt to stop the bleeding, ALEC shut down its "Public Safety and Elections Task Force" — responsible for the guns, voter ID, and immigration model bills — and announced that it would refocus on economic issues.

4) Who funds ALEC?

David Koch, center, has helped outside advocacy groups command a greater share of resources in the conservative universe.

David Koch, in 2011. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

The bulk of ALEC's funding (around $8 million a year) comes from corporations, trade associations, or conservative foundations. Hundreds of corporations and trade groups have had varying levels of involvement with ALEC over the years. The group's Private Enterprise Advisory Council currently includes representatives from ExxonMobil, PhRMA, AT&T, UPS, State Farm Insurance, Altria (formerly Philip Morris), and the American Bail Coalition.

Koch Industries has also been a key funder. When ALEC faced funding troubles and nearly went defunct in the mid-1990s, the Kochs gave the group a $430,000 loan, according to Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy. Then, from 1999 through 2002, a Koch Industries official chaired ALEC's private enterprise board, and he remains on that board today. Koch foundations have given ALEC hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.

5) Is there a liberal ALEC?

Alec Baldwin

Noted liberal Alec Baldwin. (Johnny Nunez / WireImage / Getty)

Wealthy conservative donors have long shown more interest in funding state-level initiatives than their liberal counterparts. Accordingly, while there have been a few attempts to found liberal alternatives to ALEC, none have yet caught on.

In 2005, the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN) was founded to provide a counterpart to ALEC. It was later renamed the Progressive States Network (PSN). But as of the latest fundraising figures, from 2012, it was nowhere in the same league as its conservative counterpart — ALEC raised 24 times as much money as PSN.

In 2012, another group called the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) was founded for the same purpose. In July 2014, PSN and ALICE announced they would merge and be led by former White House aide Nick Rathod.

But after the Democrats' resounding defeats in the 2014 midterms, it was apparently time for a rebranding. Politico's Ken Vogel reported on November 9 that Rathod will found a new group called the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) to push progressive priorities in the states.

SiX seems to have even broader ambitions than ALEC — Vogel writes that the group will also use "bare-knuckle tactics like opposition research and video tracking to derail Republicans and their initiatives." Vogel also reported that Gara LaMarche (an operative who runs the Democracy Alliance that coordinates donations from wealthy liberals) emphasized in a recent email that it's not DC, but "the rest of the country — the states where progressive power must be built and restored — that will be our primary and urgent focus."

For now, though, any liberal ALEC will face one key problem — after the 2014 elections, Democrats will only control the legislatures in 11 states. A think tank to write bills might be nice, but if Democrats want those bills to actually become law, they'll have to figure out how to win some more state elections first.