Point Austin: Standing Our Ground Against ALEC

The corporate bill caucus you never elected

Point Austin

The American Legislative Exchange Council – the blandly named corporate lobbying group better known by the acronym "ALEC" – is in the news again, following the Florida acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. ALEC was until last year the major promoter of "Stand Your Ground" laws underlying the Zimmerman case. Although Zimmerman's defense did not explicitly cite the 2005 Florida law that removes most limits against deadly force in a confrontation, the judge firmly included it in her jury instructions.

ALEC officially dropped the Stand-Your-Ground business last spring, shortly after the Martin shooting, offering the not terribly persuasive defense that it didn't draft the Florida law (the National Rifle Association takes that credit), only adapted it for its own model legislation – duly enacted in a couple dozen other states, including Texas. After the Martin headlines embarrassed numerous ALEC underwriters into dropping their support (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's, Amazon, GM, etc.), ALEC said it would refocus on "economic issues."

The pattern is similar to the one I noted last week ("United Defense of the Fetus"); after initiating anti-abortion legislation a few years ago, ALEC has effectively ceded that task to its sister organization, Americans United for Life. Both organizations operate as "charities" for tax purposes, when in fact they are massive lobbying groups which avoid the messy business of state registration or disclosure, while they entertain and arm-twist legislators on special-interest legislation.

Why had ALEC been so enthusiastic about "Stand Your Ground"? It was a pet project of the NRA, which is essentially the lobbying wing of the gun industry – and as Don Corleone told Sollozzo about narcotics, it makes no difference to ALEC "how a man makes his living." But ALEC and its corporate sponsors abhor bad publicity – it's simply bad for business.

We Already Voted

In any case, there remain plenty of corporations (heavy on energy, big pharma, tobacco) comfortable with purchasing legislation and writing it off on their taxes. Most of the (mostly Republican) legislators hosted at conventions are delighted to adapt ALEC's model legislation for their particular states because it's much more direct than slogging through substantive public hearings and bipartisan compromise.

In any case, ALEC indulges a touching parody of democracy: Member legislators vote on proposed bills alongside their corporate sponsors, and if both groups concur, model legislation moves forward to the states.

What better expression of the legislators' true constituency?

The Bosses' Agenda

Gun sales are indeed rather low on the ALEC priority list. "Tort reform" – i.e., insulating corporations from civil liability – is always a major interest, although in Texas there remains little for suborned legislators to do. Uppity employees, on the other hand, are always a problem; for 2013, the Center for Media and Democracy has identified 117 bills introduced in state legislatures designed "to drive down wages; limit health care, pensions, and other benefits; and cripple working families' participation in the political and legislative process."

Bills introduced this year in Texas would prohibit prevailing wage laws, weaken teacher certification, and privatize state services. Privatization is an ALEC obsession; if a bill has been introduced at the Lege that would hand over some aspect of social services or public education to private industry, you can be certain that ALEC's fingerprints are all over it.

For example, school vouchers have never been terribly popular at the Lege, even among rural Republicans, whose constituents rely heavily on public schools. But suburbanites – e.g., Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston – keep filing voucher bills because privatizers like ALEC want to maintain the pressure to shift public funding to private schools. Related bills, promoting "online" education, standardized testing (and the testing industry), "parent triggers" for school closings, and so on, have long been incubated at ALEC.

ALEC-developed laws run the gamut of conservative, corporate wish lists: voter ID, limits on union organizing, undermining environmental regulation, and of course, anything that would lower corporate tax liabilities and limit progressive taxation. All of this legislating by proxy is accomplished mostly under the radar, in periodic "bipartisan" conferences that are one-stop-shop lobbying sessions, underwritten by corporations meeting privately with their legislative collaborators to draft the bills those legislators will carry in upcoming sessions.

And if they didn't pass those bills in 2013? There's always another session.

One unexpected consequence of the Zimmerman acquittal is that it has raised the public profile of ALEC, in an uncomfortable way for its corporate and legislative members (the handful of Texas Democrats left ALEC last year). The movement to repeal "Stand Your Ground" laws – which will be no easy task in most states – may also mean that other ALEC-inspired laws will receive additional public scrutiny, making it at least a little more difficult for our corporate masters to impose their will on the country at-large.

For more on the American Legislative Exchange Council, see ALECExposed.org. A good introduction is "United States of ALEC" by Moyers and Company, available at billmoyers.com/segment/united-states-of-alec/.

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News, American Legislative Exchange Council, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, "Stand Your Ground" laws, Americans United for Life, National Rifle Association, tort reform, Center for Media and Democracy, Dan Patrick, school vouchers

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