Editor’s note: This article, by Lois Beckett, was first published on ProPublica.
For decades, a discreet nonprofit has brought together state legislators and corporate representatives to produce business-friendly “model” legislation. These “model” bills form the basis of hundreds of pieces of legislation each year, and they often end up as laws. As media scrutiny of the nonprofit — the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC — has grown, ProPublica has built both a guide and a searchable database so you can see for yourself how ALEC’s model bills make their way to statehouses.
ALEC’s influence in Vermont
by Ann Galloway
About 2,000 state lawmakers are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — and among them are several Vermont legislators, including Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who is one of 50 state “chairmen” from each state in the country. Sen. Peg Flory, a Republican from Rutland, is also a member of ALEC. Rep. Pat O’Donnell, R-Vernon, who retired from the Legislature last year, is also listed on the organization’s website.
Mullin, who has been part of ALEC since 2000, said 15 Vermont lawmakers are affiliated with the organization. He said he wishes more legislators were involved in the organization because ALEC presents a moderate to conservative counterpoint to the National Council of State Legislatures, which he considers to be more liberal.
At one point, under Rep. Frank Mazur’s chairmanship, Vermont had about 30 ALEC members, Mullin said.
“I should be recruiting and things like that,” Mullin said. “A good state chair would have most of the Legislature enrolled.”
Mullin received $1,500 from ALEC corporations, including $300 from AT&T, $200 from Pfizer, $250 from Federal Express and $750 from GlaxoSmithKline. Mullin raised about $28,000 for his Senate campaign in Rutland County last year.
Flory also took money from companies that are a part of the ALEC network, including $300 from AT&T, $200 from Pfizer, $200 from Merck and $500 from Corrections Corporation of America, which has a contract with the state of Vermont for incarcerating inmates in out-of-state prisons.
In all, Flory received about $9,000 for her campaign in Rutland County.
Vermont members shun cookie-cutter legislation
Neither candidate appears to have used verbatim ALEC statutory language in bills they proposed last year.
Mullin said he doesn’t use ALEC language in his legislative proposals.
“They create model legislation, and I haven’t found a lot of that real helpful,” Mullin said.
What he does appreciate is ALEC’s involvement with private sector businesses. “If you ever want to create jobs and boost the economy, you want to talk to people who do that,” Mullin said.
“If you want to come to good decisions, you have to hear from all sides. You have to work with people — liberals and conservatives &mdas; and come to your own judgment about which way to go…In my case, I listen to constituents, and I go from there.”
A case in point for Mullin is the single-payer health care plan proposal that he helped to shape in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. He included language in the bill that protects businesses from financial exposure to impacts from an as yet to be designed tax system for single payer that could be deemed unsustainable.
ALEC opposes single-payer plan in any form. Mullin said he didn’t talk to ALEC about his proposal; he sought advice from Tom Huebner, the CEO of Rutland Regional Medical Center. “I did my own thing,” Mullin said. “I didn’t ask for any help on that. I don’t follow NCSL that often either.”
In other states, ALEC-inspired legislation has included the detention of suspected illegal immigrants (Corrections Corporation of America helped to draft the bill), Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union budget initiatives, and caps on punitive damages in personal injury cases.
Following the steps ProPublica lays out may reveal some interesting connections. Last month, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political columnist Daniel Bice looked into an obscure ALEC-approved bill to tax chewing tobacco by weight rather than price. The ALEC model legislation calls this a “fairness” issue, noting that “taxes that create a consumer preference within a product category impede free market commerce.” It does not note that Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and a member of ALEC’s private enterprise board, sells pricier “premium” brands of chewing tobacco and stands to benefit from the tax change.
ALEC and its members favor “federalism and conservative public policy solutions,” and ALEC representatives tell reporters that its mission is fundamentally “educational.” ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber told the Los Angeles Times, “Legislators should hear from those the government intends to regulate.”
Founded in the mid-1970s, ALEC has no real counterpart on the left. Its closest equivalent, the Progressive States Network, was founded in 2005, has about a quarter of ALEC’s funding and produces only a small amount of model legislation.
Thanks to a critical mass of resources now available on the Internet, you, too, can trace which of ALEC’s model bills made it to statehouses, which legislators sponsored them and which industries may have had an interest in the success of the bill.
You can find 800 of ALEC’s model bills on the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” site. Using data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, you can also find out how much ALEC-affiliated companies and associations have donated to ALEC-affiliated state legislators, going back to the 1990 election cycle. ProPublica has made that process even easier — the news organization used the institute’s data to build a more easily searchable contributions database.
To navigate among these different sites, ProPublica has put together a detailed, step-by-step guide to help journalists, bloggers and citizens trace the influence of ALEC’s model legislation on state law.
Please use the comments section below to compare notes or to reveal anything interesting you’ve found. Make sure to include any URLs that illustrate what you’ve found. ProPublica’s ALEC contributions database makes that part easy — there’s a box on the side of every page with a “permalink” you can include in your comment or story.
Step one: Focus on a particular legislator or issue
To get started, you can search our ALEC Contributors database by state or name to find out which of your state legislators are affiliated with ALEC. Then you can look at their official websites, which typically include lists of the legislation they’ve sponsored. (This might appear under a heading like “Accomplishments.”)
Once you’ve identified a model bill related to a particular issue, you can start with a simple Google search of the title of the bill. Sometimes that will bring up news articles or press releases about the states where the bill has been introduced.
If that doesn’t work, another tactic is to find out which ALEC legislators brought that bill back to their statehouses to turn into law. ALEC’s bills are discussed, written and approved by “task forces” of particular legislators and private sector representatives. So, to find out which state legislators may have sponsored legislation on this topic, it’s helpful to first check which legislators belong to the task force that developed the “model bill.”
Confused? Here’s an example. Under “Civil Justice” on the ALEC site, there are three bills related to limiting asbestos exposure claims. To find out which state legislators may have sponsored a bill on this topic, you should first check see which legislators are members of ALEC’s “Civil Justice” task force. ALEC’s site lists at least one: Ohio State Sen. Bill Seitz. But the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” site has a bigger list of task force affiliates, and the “Civil Justice” section of the list includes nine state legislators, including Kansas Rep. Lance Kinzer, who listed his ALEC affiliation in a press release for his 2010 re-election bid.
Posted on Kinzer’s website are detailed annual newsletters with his “legislative highlights.” Search for the term “asbestos” in each of these newsletters, and a relevant bill pops up: 2006, SB 512, the Silica and Asbestos Claims Act.
Step two: Compare the text of sponsored legislation with the text of ALEC’s model bills
Once you’ve found a potential connection between an ALEC model bill and state legislation, it’s time to do a full-text comparison.
You can find the full text of roughly 800 ALEC model bills obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy on the ALEC Exposed website. The easiest way to find the bill you want is to do a keyword search. When browsing the bills, you should note that they are organized by subject but in a different way than the bills on the ALEC site, so you may have to click around to find a particular bill. Another tip: Bypass the “Click here for a zip file of bills” option for each topic and instead choose “For more details click here.” On each topic page, there’s a link to the “full list of individual bills” for each section, which will bring you to a long list of ALEC’s model bills, all available in PDF.
Every bill that’s introduced is supposed to benefit somebody, but the real beneficiaries aren’t always obvious.”
To continue our previous example, search the ALEC Exposed site for “silica” or browse the “Tort Reform and Injured Americans” section until you find the relevant bills. A keyword search brings up the PDF of the “Asbestos and Silica Claims Act Revealed,” which seems a likely match for Kansas’ “SB 512, the Silica and Asbestos Claims Act.”
Next, you need the full text of the actual state legislation. To find this, you can usually go to the state legislature’s web page, which should give you the option to search or browse through bills under consideration in the state’s House or Senate, as well as search for approved statutes. (If you need a refresher on how a bill becomes law, some states provide that, too.)
So, in the asbestos example, if you click on the “Bills and Laws” tab on the Kansas Legislature home page, go to “Statutes” and do a full-text search for “silica,” you’ll find the Silica and Asbestos Claims Act. You have to click through several pages to read the whole text, but even a quick scan shows that many phrases in the Kansas statute are identical to the ALEC model. (You can also download software like Beyond Compare that will do an automatic text comparison for you.)
Bingo — you have identified a state law based on an ALEC model bill.
Step three: Find out who benefits from the bill’s passage
Every bill that’s introduced is supposed to benefit somebody, but the real beneficiaries aren’t always obvious.
One of the most powerful ways to find out who has an interest in the legislation is to look at the records of the discussion and passage of the bill. State legislatures’ websites often provide this information, including minutes of the hearings at which specific bills were discussed, which typically include lists of who came forward to speak for and against the bill.
For instance, doing a site search for “SB 512″ on the Kansas Legislature’s page brings up the minutes for the Senate Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee on Feb. 14, 15, 21 and 22, 2006; and the House Insurance Committee’s meetings on March 14 and 21, 2006. These minutes contain a rich trove of information and reveal that insurance companies, business associations and contractors stood to benefit from the bill, while representatives from trial lawyer associations spoke against it.
You can also see which corporations were involved in discussions about model legislation. ALEC runs conferences, bringing together politicians and corporate representatives. Attendees meet in topic-specific groups such as “Civil Justice,” and you can find partial task force membership information on the ALEC Exposed site.
While you’re looking for potential beneficiaries, you might also want to glance at campaign donations through our ALEC database, as well as the National Institute for Money in State Politics’ state-by-state database of campaign contributions. Which companies and individuals contributed to the legislators who supported the bill?
For instance, Lance Kinzer’s page in ProPublica’s ALEC Donor database includes $1,000 in campaign contributions from Kansas-based Koch Industries in 2006, the year the asbestos legislation was introduced. At that time, Koch had recently acquired a company with 57,400 asbestos litigation claims against it. Koch has also lobbied about asbestos at the national level. Kansas politicians don’t exactly rake in the money: Kinzer raised about $43,000 in 2006, and Koch’s $1,000 made it one of his biggest contributors. Of course, this is also a relatively modest contribution from a conservative-owned Kansas corporation to a conservative Kansas politician.
When we called and emailed Kinzer to ask about the legislation, he wrote back: “The real expert on this is former Representative Eric Carter.” (Carter was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment.)
“I honestly remember virtually nothing about this issue from 5 years ago,” Kinzer added in a subsequent email message. He did not respond to further questions.
Step four and beyond: Look at the bigger picture
It’s perfectly appropriate — in fact, it’s the right thing to do — to call lawmakers or companies for more information. Do your homework, and have your facts ready. Ask them things like: How did you come to support this particular legislation at this particular time? What factors influenced your decision? What role did ALEC’s model legislation play? Their answers may not be illuminating — they may, in fact, not remember much at all — but it’s important to go directly to the source.
If you’re interested in tracing ALEC’s influence through a particular piece of legislation, you shouldn’t end your investigation with one state. What makes ALEC a powerful policy clearinghouse is that its model legislation is often introduced in several states at once. A quick Google search for the different titles of the act you’ve been following should be enough to point you to more states that may have considered or enacted similar legislation. From there, you can repeat the same steps to understand more about the local and national players who had an interest in the bill.