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Hiding the sausage

How ALEC, a well-funded right-wing organization, is grinding out state laws

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When Jeff Wright walked into the lobby of the New Orleans Marriott on Aug. 3, he wasn’t sure what to expect. As the director of public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association – a prominent teachers’ union that had been bearing the brunt of legislative attacks from Florida Republicans throughout the 2011 legislative session – he wasn’t there for your standard Mardi Gras-themed party. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a national nonprofit organization made up of elected officials and private interests who gather regularly to try to directly influence the substance of public policy, was holding its annual four-day meeting there, so any “partying” would probably be a little more conservative, and – going by a recent glut of press coverage pointing out ALEC’s clearinghouse mentality of privately linking big corporations with the state legislators willing to pursue their bottom-line agendas in the form of “model legislation” – slightly more nefarious. Nevertheless, he wanted to see it for himself.

“I just registered straight up, fully disclosed who I represented, the whole thing,” he says, pointing out that he paid some $900 in registration fees. “I was surprised I got to go. I got pretty nervous going through several of the sessions, because they don’t always give both sides of the equation, needless to say.”

He wore a name tag disclosing his FEA affiliation, took some sideways glances from legislators, corporate suits and ALEC staffers, and got on with the business of having his eyes opened to the multimillion dollar machine that’s been effectively – and legally – chipping away at liberal causes in state legislatures across the country.

“At one point they told me I couldn’t come into one session,” he says. “I said, ‘Wait, no, I paid $900 to be a participant. My badge says participant. If I’m not going to be allowed in, then I’d like my money back.’”

Wright was allowed in, but he was one of the lucky ones. At least three journalists from independent media blogs were strong-armed by security guards instructed by ALEC to get them out. One state representative, Wisconsin Democrat Marc Pocan, reported some glares despite the fact that he, too, had paid his own way (a $50 annual fee for legislators).

“We had other people there representing the progressive side and those who were there that were from media groups – they weren’t permitted in,” Wright says. “They were bodily removed.”

ALEC is, by nature, a cynical construct. The multimillion dollar think tank insists it’s not a lobbying group, yet it readily utilizes the financial influence of its huge affiliate corporations to assist in the actual writing of law, and it helps with the election to public office those who will introduce its “model legislations” in state governments. It calls itself bipartisan, but in 2010, only three of its 23 legislative board leaders were Democrats. ALEC claims to be little more than a fair-minded gathering place of ideas, but the bulk of the science and ideals behind its think tanks are purchased directly by corporate special interests. And it operates, like many of its billionaire CEO members, in the dark rooms of closed meetings.

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