March 31, 2011- As puzzle master Will Shortz might say, what is a four-letter acronym for a virtually unknown, but politically powerful conservative organization? If you guessed ALEC, you won't be receiving an NPR lapel pin, but rest assured, you are in very elite company.
Most people are unaware of the existence or reach of this shadowy organization. The members of ALEC would rather you remain ignorant of their purposes. In fact, these folks are so uncomfortable with anyone knowing about them that a University of Wisconsin history professor is being hammered by the Republican Party of that state for suggesting in an entry on his blog that in order to better understand the actions in various states with new Republican governors whose radical legislative proposals are remarkably similar, it might be worthwhile paying attention to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Hardly a day goes by without a conservative governor proposing some draconian anti-labor, anti-middle class law aimed at – dare I say it — destroying democracy in this country. And, while the Washington, D.C.-based ALEC may not be responsible for all of the mayhem going on in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Florida, and Michigan (with more states certain to follow), it has historically played an extraordinary role in shaping pro-corporate legislation in a number of states.
Interestingly, as of May 2010, Wisconsin's long-serving Republican Sen. Scott L. Fitzgerald, now the state's Senate Majority Leader, the man who has led the charge in the Wisconsin state senate against the state's workers on behalf of Governor Scott Walker, was listed as an ALEC State Chairman. This year, ALEC lists Assembly Rep. Robin J. Vos as its Wisconsin State Chairman. Vos is the co-chair of the Wisconsin budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
A little ALEC history is in order: In 1973, the organization was established by the late Paul Weyrich (who co-founded the Heritage Foundation and is widely considered to be one of the Godfathers of the New Right), former Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, and conservative activist Lou Barnett. According to Source Watch, a project of the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC is a "semi-secretive" organization that "has been highly influential, has operated quietly in the United States for decades, and received remarkably little scrutiny from journalists, media or members of the public during that time."
ALEC denies that it is a lobbying group and it is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)3 charitable organization that has tax exempt status.
Although thousands of state and local lawmakers pay a "nominal membership fee to attend ALEC's retreats and receive model legislation," the bulk of the organization's financial support – over 80 percent of its income – comes from corporations. ALEC provides state legislators with model legislation in support of limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.
In a report titled "ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America" and issued last May, the American Association for Justice described ALEC as "the ultimate smoke filled back room." In 2009 alone, according to the report, "826 bills were introduced in the states in 2009 and 115 were enacted into law."
This year, it is unclear whether the number of ALEC-inspired bills will exceed 2009's numbers, but it is clear that the scope of this year's frontal attack on working people appears to be the broadest in ALEC's nearly forty-year history.