Last year, our state legislature considered a bill familiarly called the "ag-gag” bill, which sought to prevent whistleblowers from exposing animal abuse, unsafe working conditions and environmental violations on industrial farms. Once the public became aware, strong opposition stopped the bill.
What we may not have noticed is that bills of identical or almost identical wording were introduced in conservative-majority statehouses across the country. One explanation is that the measure was initiated by the Republican National Committee or a major conservative think tank. That’s not the case.
If we were paying attention, we would’ve noticed presumably coincidental legislative events in red states across the country, including Tennessee, involving bills to limit workplace rights and labor standards, to complicate voting rights, to instate “stand your ground” policies, to use public monies to subsidize private K-12 schools and to attack teachers and their unions. None of these bills originated with the Republican National Committee, and likely none was conceived or written by the legislator who introduced it.
These bills are the latest of hundreds introduced over decades from a common source — the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC wasn’t on the public radar until 2011, when a whistleblower handed the Center for Media and Democracy an exposé of the history and inner workings of the organization and copies of 800 model bills of the 1,000 or so that have now been written and approved by ALEC members.
This is no recent development. ALEC is 40 this year, having kept its work secret for 37 years.
ALEC is made up of two different memberships. One set are major corporations and conservative nonprofits that pay annual dues from $2,500 to $10,000. Their job is to write model legislation designed to serve their profit interests. Conditions seldom proved conducive for advancing their legislation nationally, so they concocted the ingenious ploy to accomplish their goals state by state.
This is where the other level of membership comes in. ALEC woos state legislators for token dues of $50 a year and proceeds to coddle and reward them. For their $50, legislators get all-expense paid vacations, with their families, to some of the most lavish hotel/conference centers in the country, where ALEC holds annual summits to draft and approve model bills.
Summit budgets include as much as $250,000 for child care so parents can play. There are opportunities to rub shoulders with very important people, which can result in out-of-state contributions to campaign funds.
In exchange, legislators are asked to carry finalized bills back home to introduce as their own work, without disclosure that they had previously been drafted and voted on by corporations as a means to enhance profits.
ALEC’s 1,000 bills have wide scope. They’re designed to undermine safety regulations; limit patent rights; strip environmental protections; weaken worker and consumer rights; weaken wage, injured worker and labor standards; influence tax and budget policy; affect health care, Big Pharmacy, social welfare, energy, agriculture, voting and federal relations; privatize prisons; and undermine public education with schemes to shift public money to for-profit private schools.
Too many of the bills on the Tennessee legislative docket came easy. The Center for Media and Democracy/ALEC Exposed website lists the member legislators so far identified by state, if you’re interested, although they’d rather we not know.
It’s no coincidence that current red-state legislatures across the country are as focused on education as Tennessee’s is. All promote charter schools and voucher programs that drain public school resources to subsidize private schools while defending their unregulated status.
The ALEC Exposed site has texts of all their education bills and a clear 12-point summation of the approaches they will use to co-opt public money to advance their dream of an eventual completely privatized system.
It should be no surprise that the chair of the ALEC work group that authored the bill passed in Tennessee to make public money available for now-discredited online K-12 Inc. was the owner of K-12 Inc.
There also are ALEC bills that attempt to change colleges and universities.
Time spent at this website won’t be wasted. At the least, give some thought to one question: Who is likely to win when interests of children are weighed against corporate and shareholder profits?
There’s a reason for-profit colleges and universities receive more Pell Grant money than public or nonprofit institutions, but have dismal graduation rates — actually losing half the freshman before year’s end. The institution doesn’t have to give the money back whether or not they serve the students. The privateers have designs on public money, and that’s fact.
Dozens of major corporations and nonprofits have cut ties with ALEC since exposure. Public outcries over such issues as voting rights and “stand your ground” has weakened the organization.
Have no illusions though — ALEC is still a viable corporate collaboration determined to reshape our democracy, state by state.
That ought to matter, whatever our politics. It’s a cynical situation-ethics proponent who’d defend such insidious manipulation of our governing process.
Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.