Getting Deep Inside ALEC

Local activist exposes decades of secret legislation

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ithin two hours of helping stage a loud protest outside a spring convention of conservative policymakers, Over-the-Rhine resident Aliya Rahman got a telephone call that has now triggered a media groundswell.

“I have information about ALEC,” said a voice.

Six weeks earlier, 29-year-old Rahman had been a Miami Univeristy Ph.D. student and labor organizer who wondered why an Ohio budget clause threatening to deregulate wages and class sizes at her school was coming so close upon the heels of a similar proposal in Virginia.

Then a link on Facebook got her attention. A Wisconsin history professor had proposed that conservative bills arising simultaneously in multiple states, like those aimed at reducing workers’ bargaining rights, were rolling quietly out of a nonprofit group known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

And ALEC was coming to Cincinnati.

Rahman did some research: Corporations like Walmart and lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association were paying annual dues as high as $10,000 for the privilege of anonymously writing business-friendly “model legislation” for states. Their colleagues in ALEC, state lawmakers, were then introducing these bills around the nation. Meanwhile, regular people had no way to help shape these bills, find out who had written them or know which of their elected representatives belonged to ALEC.

An experienced community organizer, Rahman got busy and formed a core team of activists who had less than a month to mobilize a regional protest on Fountain Square, followed by 19 public teach-ins.

By the end of that afternoon, she was tired.

“What kind of information do you have?” Rahman asked the caller, expecting little after weeks of phone calls from activists whose enthusiasm sometimes veered into conspiracy theory.

This one left her trembling.

A whistleblower with full access to ALEC’s documents wanted to deliver 800 model bills to the protest’s organizers. So Rahman — single, without close family connections, and at that point between jobs — agreed to act as conduit.

She passed the documents along to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit investigative newsgroup which organized them onto a website that it activated July 13. Overtly critical, allows anyone to cross-check wording from the leaked bills against laws in their own states to see where ALEC’s invisible hand might appear.

There’s a bumper crop of ALEC bills in Ohio this year that highlight the group’s values. The stated mission of ALEC, which members readily recite, is “to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.”

The Ohio Healthcare Amendment, which will give voters this November a state-level weapon against so-called ObamaCare, comes straight from ALEC’s Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act: “No law or rule shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in a health care system.”

Unusually, this is one resolution whose march across the nation (hitting 40 states so far) ALEC proudly tracks on the public portion of its website.

It’s also a great example of the group’s interest in “federalism,” or state sovereignty. But with private sector members that include America’s Health Insurance Plans (a trade organization) and several individual health insurance companies, it’s hard to pin that model bill on lofty ideals alone.

On Aug. 1, ProPublica published a handy tool that looks deeper into the group’s relationships by listing all the donations given by any ALEC business to any ALEC legislator, dating back to 1990.

Among health insurers last year, Humana donated $1,500 to the campaigns of Ohio state Sens. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township) and Steve Buehrer (R-Toledo). And Hoffmann-Laroche gave $250 each to Sen. Buehrer and Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R-Napoleon); all three legislators belong to ALEC.

Anti-immigration activist Sheriff Richard Jones of Butler County didn’t have the same success with an Ohio Immigration Reform Initiative. Jones, who last year had to pay $100,000 to an undocumented construction worker he illegally had arrested and deported to Mexico, hoped this year to pass a referendum like Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070.

Both texts borrow wording from ALEC’s No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act, which empowers police to check the immigration status of anyone who provokes “reasonable suspicion,” and criminalizes any action to “conceal, harbor or shield” an undocumented immigrant.

Local community organizer Ben Stockwell, 24, also points out on his ALEC-tracking blog that five Ohio members are sponsoring a related bill, H.B. 286, which would hold employers responsible for reporting their employees’ legal statuses. Stockwell shows large portions of this bill which seem to have been copied verbatim from ALEC’s Fair and Legal Employment Act.

Both of these bills came out of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections task force, whose 2011 corporate chair is the National Rifle Association (NRA).

While it’s not obvious how the NRA would stand to benefit from jailing illegal immigrants, three powerful recent ALEC members stand to gain quite a bit: The American Bail Coalition, The Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, a multinational provider of correctional and detention services.

The average undocumented immigrant in America pays about $80,000 more into the U.S. tax system over the course of his or her life than he or she will tap out of it. So it’s not clear how these efforts to restrict immigration benefit the lives or liberties of Americans.

State Rep. John Adams (R-Sidney), ALEC’s Ohio chairman, says the group’s work and motivation are primarily “philosophical,” and he laughs at recent media representations of ALEC.

“An exchange of ideas has somehow turned into political favors,” Adams says.

But the new leak has revealed some pieces of model legislation that seem far too radically restrictive to reflect any Jeffersonian ideal.

One, called the HIV Assault Act, would make any intimate contact with an HIV-positive person a felony on his or her part, regardless of consent or disclosure.

Another resolution called The Marriage Contract, wouldn’t allow a couple to divorce until a “preponderance of the evidence by one party of the fault of the other party” could be demonstrated.

Other bills clearly favor businesses, but at irrefutable cost to public health.

ALEC’s Resolution on Plain Packaging, written last year, would preempt any legislation that aims to decrease cigarette consumption by requiring (as Australia has recently done) that packages be drab and unbranded.

And the Right to Farm Act is a quintessential “ag gag” bill, making farms immune to nuisance complaints due to any “adoption of a new technology,” and requiring neighbors who file complaints about smell or pollution to reimburse all legal costs to the farm if their complaint doesn’t prevail.

Until now, ALEC members have been describing their partnership as a good-faith push toward a stronger economy through stronger businesses and laughing off what Adams described as “this black helicopter conspiracy.”

But the conversation is bound to deepen this week.

On Aug. 5, ALEC will hold its Annual Summit in New Orleans and a protest is planned. Two days earlier, protest organizers will hold a press conference to hear how ALEC’s model legislation affects people’s lives. It will be streamed live on the Internet.

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