This article by the author was first posted in the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s blog.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a great influence on our Oklahoma state politics, but many Oklahomans have heard little about the organization. On the surface, ALEC is an organization made up of corporations and state-level elected officials which meets three times a year to write “model legislation” for states. Officials can then take the model legislation back to their state for consideration. That sounds like a good process, except that what goes on under the surface of ALEC is kept secret.
In May of 2013, ALEC met in Oklahoma City. While corporate representatives from ALEC met with our legislators, a group of citizens protested across the street. The protesters, as well as members of the press, had been barred from attending by security guards. The agenda of the meeting was secret and an elaborate drop box system was created to avoid FOIA requests. Now, over a year later, there is still little known about the meeting or its influence on our legislators.
Rep. Gary Banz, who organized the 2013 event, described it as “a giant coaches clinic for legislators” and said that, though ALEC has been criticized for its secrecy, “The bottom line is if it’s not on our website, it’s not an issue or area that we have embraced.” That’s not quite right. While ALEC’s website lists some of its policies and model laws, a part of the website is off limits for non-members. The public, journalists, and small business owners are excluded from ALEC membership by steep fees and by a screening process which insures new members are in harmony with ALEC’s mission. ALEC’s membership and funding sources are kept secret .
Much of what is known about ALEC has been discovered by leaked documents and by citizen’s watchdog groups, such as SourceWatch. ALEC is a 501(c)(3) organization which is not required to reveal its donors or its funding. It has 300 corporate and 1,800 legislative members, but it will not release its membership lists. Rep. Banz said 70 Oklahoma legislators are members, but SourceWatch lists only 38, leaving 32 members’ identities secret.
Because of the secrecy, it is hard to know what legislation comes from ALEC. Legislators can copy the bills, change them to disguise their source, and present them as their own. Most voters, the press, and even legislative colleagues often do not realize that the legislation came from ALEC. Sponsoring ALEC legislation ensures politicians they will receive support for their re-election campaigns. ALEC’s legislation is often supported by one-sided research, talking points, and op-ed articles designed to convince voters that the politicians are really looking after their best interests.
Many of ALEC’s model laws claim to promote freedom, fairness, and reform, but the end result is often that average citizens lose out in the process. Citizen’s watchdog groups, such as Common Cause and SourceWatch, are critical of ALEC, saying its bills undercut health care reform, undermine environmental regulations, promote school and prison privatization, limit workers’ rights, restrain legislatures’ abilities to raise revenue through taxes, and mandate strict election laws that disenfranchise some voters, among many other issues.
As Bill Moyers argues in his documentary, United States of ALEC, ALEC is undermining our system of democracy. The strength of the United States is its unity, but some corporations are working through ALEC to undermine that unity at the state level so they can escape regulation and avoid taxes. ALEC is designed to give more power to corporations, claiming that businesses making decisions in their self-interest will lead to the most good for everyone, but the reality is that it does the most good for the already wealthy. We live in a state with enough resources to ensure that every citizen has food, shelter, medical care, education, and an opportunity to contribute back to society. That won’t happen if our state legislature is unduly influenced by ALEC.
What to do about ALEC is the hard question. ALEC hides its members and its funding sources, and it operates as an educational organization to escape lobbying restrictions. There are apparently 32 ALEC members in our state legislature who have not been identified. My plan is to give ALEC as much publicity as possible and to make it a campaign issue by asking candidates to pledge they will not join any organization which will keep them from representing the best interests of Oklahoma citizens.
J.C. Moore is a retired science teacher, a member of the the American Geophysical Union, and co-founder of OKcitizensfirst.org.