Saturday, April 14, 2012

Death to ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right wing lobbying group with ties to the Koch brothers, Exxon-Mobil, the NRA and others, has tentacles reaching deep into the Commonwealth and the Shenandoah Valley. But, ALEC isn't just your garden variety lobbying group trying to influence bills that legislators draft based on ideas from constituents; it actually writes the laws and recruits the legislators to sponsor and support them.

In Virginia alone, some 50 ALEC-drafted bills were introduced including ones designed to curtail voting; to change tax, environment, and education policy; and to end even the most reasonable and timid gun safety laws. Delegate Dickie Bell's Castle Bill is one modeled by ALEC as is the Stand Your Ground law that led to the tragedy in Florida.

So how deep is ALEC's influence in the Commonwealth? Among the findings of a recent report (download the full PDF report here):
  • Speaker William Howell is a member of ALEC's national leadership team. In 2009, he served as the group's national chairman. Howell asked several of his colleagues to carry ALEC bills and approved the expenditure of taxpayer money to send his colleagues to ALEC conferences.
  • Between 2001 and 2010, the Commonwealth spent over $230,000 of taxpayer money to send legislators to ALEC conferences in order to meet with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors.
  • ALEC spent over $70,000 directly lobbying legislators (and who knows how much more paying for conferences, meals, etc.).
In the Shenandoah Valley, Delegate Dickie Bell has especially tight ties with ALEC. In addition to the Castle Doctrine bill, Bell has introduced legislation to allow charter schools to circumvent policies of local school boards, to reduce regulations on greenhouse emissions, and a vague bill about rights with the intent of undermining and privatizing public education. His predecessor in the 20th District, Chris Saxman, had ALEC conference and registration fees paid so he could attend meetings in Washington and Texas. Saxman was also reimbursed, with taxpayer money, for travel to those meetings.

Delegate Steve Landes (District 25) and Delegate Ben Cline (District 24) cosponsored many of the same bills as Delegate Bell including bills pushing privatization in public education, the Castle Bill, and the bill to give tax breaks to businesses that create scholarships for students to attend private school.

Senator Emmett Hanger (District 24) received an $800 "gift" from ALEC to attend an ALEC health conference and used campaign funds to pay his $250 ALEC dues.

These Shenandoah Valley legislators' monetary and corrupting ties with ALEC pale in comparison to some the General Assembly's big dogs - Speaker Bill Howell, Delegate Kirk Cox, Senator Steve Martin, and many others are nestled so soundly in the ALEC bed that they probably only have vaguely charming notions of something called "constituents." Some legislators are feeling the heat - earlier this week Speaker Howell got testy (1:32 into the video) with the executive director of PROGRESS|VA and found himself apologizing (sorta) yesterday.

The danger inherent in ALEC's behind-closed-doors influence has recently been exposed with a bit of cleansing sunshine, both nationally and in many states. Some corporate sponsors such as Wendy's, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Kraft Foods have cut support and distanced themselves from ALEC. But so far ALEC has little to fear - many in corporate America simply set up a shell game of nonprofit political groups that do not have to disclose sources of funds.

So how do we, the "constituents" who have lost our clout in Virginia's "citizen legislature" fight back? First, get informed and follow this story into the muck and slime. Second, if you patronize companies that support ALEC let them know your strong disapproval and take your business elsewhere. Third, sign PROGRESS|VA's petition to send a message to legislators to stand with constituents rather than ALEC. Fourth, join with Common Cause and the national campaign to expose the corrupting influence of ALEC and to boot ALEC from the behind the closed doors of our legislative halls.

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