-By Salvador Rizzo
April 1, 2012- TRENTON — Let’s say you’re a state lawmaker, passionate about charter schools, and you want to turn this passion into laws that create social change. What you need are bills. And you want them fast — ready-made, just add water, written in language that can withstand partisan debate and legal scrutiny.
There is a place that has just what you want.
It’s called the American Legislative Exchange Council, a little-known conservative group headquartered in Washington, D.C., and funded by some of the biggest corporations in the United States — most with a business interest in state legislation.
ALEC has quietly made its mark on the political landscape by providing state governments with mock-up bills that academic and political experts say are, for the most part, tailored to fit a conservative agenda. In recent years, states — particularly those with new Republican governors and legislatures — have been flooded with ALEC’s model bills. Nearly 1,000 of them are introduced every year, and roughly one-fifth of those become law, according to ALEC’s own count. ALEC’s bills are especially attractive because they are written so they can virtually be copied and pasted onto legislative proposals across the land.
For lawmakers, it can be an irresistible service.
"The bottom line is what’s important. The bottom line is: ‘Get me a bill. I want the bill. Get me a bill that can do what you’re talking about,’" said Rutgers University professor Alan Rosenthal, an expert on state legislatures. "And ALEC can give them a bill."
A Star-Ledger analysis of hundreds of documents shows that ALEC bills are surfacing in New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie is trying to remake the state, frequently against the wishes of a Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Drawing on bills crafted by the council, on New Jersey legislation and dozens of e-mails by Christie staffers and others, The Star-Ledger found a pattern of similarities between ALEC’s proposals and several measures championed by the Christie administration. At least three bills, one executive order and one agency rule accomplish the same goals set out by ALEC using the same specific policies. In eight passages contained in those documents, New Jersey initiatives and ALEC proposals line up almost word for word. Two other Republican bills not pushed by the governor’s office are nearly identical to ALEC models.
ALEC gained wide attention last week when one of its bills — a "stand your ground" law that allows anyone who feels threatened to defend themselves with deadly force — became part of a national controversy over the shooting death of a 17-year-old Florida boy. New Jersey has no such law.
There is nothing illegal in what ALEC does or in using its bills, but critics say New Jersey officials are handing off a cardinal duty — do your own work — to a national group with unique ties to the business world. If they’re relying on templates, critics add, state officials should publicly acknowledge any work that they do not do themselves and the source of any proposals that aren’t their own, especially when that source has an agenda.
Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said there is no connection between the efforts spearheaded by Christie and ALEC.
"Our reforms have no basis in anyone’s model legislation," Drewniak said. "The governor said to me, 'Who's ALEC?'"
Christie declined to comment for this story.
Drewniak and supporters of the governor said they research many sources to craft New Jersey measures.