American Legislative Exchange Council simply a bipartisan non-profit organization trying to "advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level" as its website says? Or is it nothing more than a lobbyist for its corporate membership, working in the shadows to draft bills the legislators it wines and dines pass into law?Is the
TV journalist Bill Moyers believes the latter and outlines his case in the documentary "The United States of ALEC".
Rather than going to Washington D.C., Moyers says ALEC changes America by getting laws passed state legislature by state legislature. His film shows examples of ALEC's model legislation that matches actual passed legislation word-for-word.
Weston Public Library hosted a showing of the documentary in its Community Room on Tuesday night and the film was followed by a panel discussion led by Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut; Ray Rossomando, a research and policy development specialist; and Sam Froiland of the Connecticut Education Association.
Aside from its corporate membership, many of ALEC's members are legislators — both Democrats and Republicans. Though Moyers' film says it's mostly Republicans.
Common Cause has filed a complaint to the IRS against ALEC, because it operates as a non-profit and doesn't pay taxes, while its members get tax write offs for their donations. Quickmire says there is nothing wrong with ALEC representing corporate interests in the legislative process, but that it should be done out in the open and the organization should register as a lobbyist, following all laws that apply to that status.
"We think it's tax fraud," she told the audience of close to 35 people gathered at Weston Library.
Among just a few of ALEC's big name corporate members are AT&T, State Farm Insurance, ExxonMobil Corp. and Koch Companies Private Sector.
Common Cause defines itself as a citizen advocacy organization. "Through research, education and lobbying, our skilled staff and dedicated volunteers work to ensure that powerful institutions in society — including government, corporations, and the news media — serve the public interest," an organization flier says.
Conservative critics of Common Cause complain about its "selective criticism" and have criticized the media for calling it "bipartisan" instead of "liberal", according to stories online.
What Does ALEC Stand For?
According to Moyers' documentary, ALEC drafts legislation to relax environmental laws for the petroleum industry, to weaken workers unions, fight against living wage laws, protect the health insurance industry, protect companies and doctors from litigation and to privatize everything — shifting public money to private companies.
Sam Froiland alleged that ALEC was behind Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch's effort to have Board of Education members in Bridgeport appointed by him, rather than elected.
Quickmire says democracy goes against ALEC's goals.
Froiland says ALEC was also behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's controversial law taking away collective bargaining rights from public employees.
ALEC outlines its initiatives in its own words on its website.
'Stay On Your Toes'
With a flood of legislation being drafted by ALEC for state legislatures every year, Quickmire told the audience what citizens can do to keep tabs on what's going on.
"Stay on your toes," she said. "Common Cause does a good job of looking into this. Talk to your family. Talk to your friends. Talk to your neighbors."
During a question and answer session, one man attending the event expressed concerns over the fact that while ordinary citizens are working all day, corporations have the benefit of ALEC's representatives lobbying on their behalf in Hartford.
"They take everything we have, put us in jail and enjoy the proceeds," he said. "I think it's criminal. What can we do to stop this?"
Quickmire said public financing and restrictions on gifts to legislators would reduce the influence of money in politics on the local level.
But on the federal level she called it "the Wild West" saying a representative cannot vote on a bill without making 25 phone calls to donors.
Quickmire also said pressure should be put on the media to expose ALEC's influence when reporting on issues.
Another man in the audience said, "A lot of the reasons I think some of this legislation moves forward is because these institutions permit criticism."
For example, he said the U.S. pays more money per student but "doesn't produce the smartest kids in the world".
He expressed his belief that the best solution when it comes to ALEC is to make the organization "own up" to being a lobbyist so everything is above board rather than behind closed doors.
"There is this monolith out there that's influencing legislation and we don't know about that," he said.
John Stripp, a former state legislator of 18 years who represented Weston, Eason, Redding and part of Newtown in Hartford, attended the event and shared his insights, which are covered in a separate story.
Citizens Making a Difference
Ellen McCormick of Weston took part in a fight to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Connecticut. She shared her experience with fellow audience members to show how organized citizens can make a difference.
Through a social media campaign, 1.23 million people joined the activists' Facebook page and over 43,000 calls were made to the governor, swinging the vote in favor of the legislation.
As a result, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law.
"This meeting is extremely important," McCormick said of citizens coming together on an issue. "More meetings like this need to take place."