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Hiding the sausage

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

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“Now many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo goo’ syndrome. Good government,” he notoriously told an audience of 15,000 preachers in Dallas in 1980 (the speech is on YouTube). “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

The documented history from there is murky and secretive at best, but ALEC didn’t remain a vehicle for political moralism for long. Increasingly the group came to align itself with large corporations and interest groups whose combined financial resources would be of better service to more economically conservative policies. Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Oil were soon at the boardroom table, clamoring for decreased regulation in states because state governments are more easily purchased than the national government. Cue: increased privatization, decreased regulation, protection against asbestos lawsuits and stricter prison sentences. Through its business-coddling measures, ALEC’s presence has grown in all 50 states, with nearly 2,000 legislative members and 300 corporate or special-interest groups convening three times a year (with one major annual conference) to hammer out next year’s conservative agenda.

Today, ALEC operates like a well-oiled political machine. In 2009 alone, 115 of the 826 bills produced by ALEC passed in state legislatures and were signed into law. At its policy core, ALEC has nine task forces –Civil Justice; Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development; Education; Energy, Environment and Agriculture; Health and Human Services; International Relations; Public Safety and Elections; Tax and Fiscal Policy; and Telecommunications and Information Technology – each headed by two separate leaders: one from the public sector (an elected state leader) and one from the private sector. So, on the task force involving the modeling of insurance legislation, you have Emory Wilkerson, a representative of State Farm Insurance, holding a commanding (if outwardly equal) vote with Colorado Republican State Rep. Glenn Vaad over what will move through the committee and what will not. If the corporation does not sign off, a measure has virtually no means of becoming model legislation to be taken by ALEC member legislators to their state governments.

That came as a surprise to Wright. “I thought they were the usual conferences where [the corporations] are all there to wine and dine and all that,” he says. “I had no idea that the structure of ALEC gives them full participation at the table. They sit at the table in the debate on the issues and then get to vote.”

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