October 2012 Issue
September 24, 2012

Group pushing so-called reforms operates — under the radar — to undermine union values

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United

Since 2010, the American Legislative Exchange Council has introduced 39 pieces of model legislation in New York's state Capitol aimed primarily at promoting and protecting corporate interests and right wing ideology.

Education, guns, voter identification, environmental and business regulations and the rights of organized labor are just some of the areas in which the well-funded group, known as ALEC, works on influencing lawmakers.

Albany is hardly the only state capital in which ALEC is plying its trade. ALEC staff, based in Washington, writes draft bills that are then disseminated in state houses across the country. The ALEC models, written to fit a largely conservative agenda, are then used by interested lawmakers as templates to write their own legislation.

Good government and watchdog groups such as Common Cause and The Center for Media and Democracy say ALEC's recent legislative priorities have focused on curtailing collective bargaining, restricting the voting rights of college students and senior citizens, pushing for public subsidies of private schools, privatizing prisons, blocking regulations on second-hand smoke, weakening environmental protections and opposing the increase in minimum-wage laws. The group has been particularly effective in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Arizona — all recent battlegrounds of anti-union activity.

ALEC is no new kid on the block. In fact, the group — whose corporate members include Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil Corp., the BP oil and gas company, Pfizer and AT&T — has existed since 1973.

But observers such as the AFL-CIO say ALEC's influence has grown substantially in recent years — especially in wake of the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision that in 2010 lifted corporate campaign-spending limits.

A big contributor to ALEC is billionaire businessman and conservative activist Philip Anschutz, who produced the anti-teacher union movie "Waiting for Superman."

Most recently, Anschutz, who runs Anschutz Entertainment Group, teamed up with conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch to produce the new film "Won't Back Down," which also casts teachers' unions as villains.

It's the corporate money, which ALEC uses to fund its operations, that has caught the attention of New York state Sen. Daniel Squadron, ranking Democrat on the state Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee.

Squadron's concern is this: ALEC is registered in New York not as a lobbyist, but rather a charitable organization.

Because of that status, ALEC enjoys tax breaks, despite receiving and spending funds from corporate members to advocate for and against legislation.

David Grandeau, the former commissioner of New York's Temporary Commission on Lobbying, testified during a hearing this summer chaired by Squadron that if ALEC spends more than $5,000 to advocate for the passage of legislation in the state, the group would be considered a lobbyist and should register as such.

"ALEC seems to engage in activity intended to influence the passage of legislation in New York state, to draft model legislation itself, and to receive significant compensation from corporations to do so," the senator said in a May letter sent to state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. "Its role and its influence in New York state government must be addressed."

Squadron is not alone in his concern. The New York chapter of Common Cause has called upon state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate ALEC and its charitable organization status.

"Any legitimate group which is in compliance with the state's lobbying laws should not protest being identified with a piece of legislation that they suggested, but rather be proud to see their policy recommendations adopted by a member of the Legislature," said Common Cause/NY Executive Director Susan Lerner. "Open collaboration between organizational sponsors and official legislative sponsors is public policy at its best. New Yorkers should know who their legislators work with."

Marcus Owens, former head of the Internal Revenue Service division that oversees tax exemptions, also has filed a complaint with the IRS, accusing ALEC of illegal lobbying and charging that its tax-exempt status should be revoked.

Though ALEC has introduced 39 pieces of model legislation in Albany since 2010, the focus and details of those model bills are not exactly known, according to Squadron's office.

With its charitable status, ALEC — unlike NYSUT, which is registered as a lobby group — does not have to disclose what legislation it is working to influence.

However, Squadron says at least three bills that have moved in the state Legislature in the past year appear to be "closely based" on ALEC models. They include: a proposed bill that seeks to bypass state Public Service Commission oversight on Voice-Over Internet Protocol services; another bill regarding voter identification and a "Stand Your Ground" gun bill.

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, passed in 2005, has been at the center of the debate surrounding the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in that state earlier this year. The controversial self-defense bill, championed by groups such as the National Rifle Association, thrust ALEC into the national spotlight and put the group on the defensive. Bowing to public pressure as a result of the controversy, a slew of corporations — including McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola — pulled their support of ALEC. In Albany, meanwhile, Skelos has said there are no plans to bring the proposed "Stand Your Ground" bill to the state Senate floor for a vote.

ALEC not only exerts its influence through model legislation, it also releases national reports to push its agenda. Earlier this year, the group released a report that ranked New York's business climate last in the nation, giving the state low marks for what it says is an unreasonable regulatory burden, high taxes and strong unions. And, in a report last year, ALEC gave New York a C-minus for education policy, criticizing the state for what it said were burdensome regulations on home schooling; poor teacher quality; and an inability in the state to terminate poorly performing teachers. Because it does not have to disclose its legislative activity, it is difficult to say just how much ALEC spends trying to influence Albany. However, a report by Common Cause — "Legislating Under the Influence: Money, Power and the American Legislative Exchange Council" — says between 2001-10, members affiliated with ALEC spent more than $8 million in New York.

"Those who work to influence legislation should do so in sunlight," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "If New Yorkers are to have faith in their state government, there must be transparency."

ALEC did not respond to requests for comment by NYSUT United. However, the group, in a series of press releases responding to recent charges against ALEC, characterized the accusations as being both "frivolous" and "patently false."

"The people now attacking ALEC and its members are the same people who have always pushed for big-government solutions," ALEC Executive Director Ron Scheberle said in one release. "Our support for free markets and limited government stands in stark contrast to their state-dependent utopia."

Sen. Squadron said as long as ALEC continues to ignore disclosure laws, it is incumbent upon state legislators to be open about who they are doing business with. And, the senator has officially called upon his fellow lawmakers to disclose any ties they may have to ALEC.

"ALEC spends thousands of corporate dollars a year to advocate for and against legislation," Squadron said. "Legislators who are part of ALEC can call it what they want, but undisclosed lobbying by any other name still stinks."