Two weeks before the first GOP debate, when other presidential candidates were in Iowa or New Hampshire, two GOP contenders – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – were at a San Diego resort headlining the annual conference hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics. It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican. And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members. Together, lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees – ALEC calls them ‘task forces’ – to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken home to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives. The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions. ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.
ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members. It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences. And it doesn’t disclose its donor list. Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures and a large Wikileaks-style whisteblower cache of documents.
Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their “continuing education.” Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions. Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year. Some, however, give more. By law, the group is barred from engaging in “substantial” lobbying, and claims – incredibly – on its most recent available IRS Form 990 that it spent no money at all on lobbying between 2010 and 2013. Common Cause has filed briefs challenging the group’s tax exemption – evidence supporting their 2011 letter can be found here. Their 2015 brief is here.
It’s a mistake, therefore, to think of ALEC primarily in terms of its documented association with Charles and David Koch. Rather, it’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures. Those lawmakers are often pampered on donors’ dimes at the organization’s gatherings. And all of it is tax deductible for the companies because ALEC turns what would ordinarily be lobbying expenses into ‘scholarships’ for state lawmakers to further their educations. So if you’ve ever wondered why voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rulemaking on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform, or food labeling seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses, ALEC is often the reason.
And now, heading into 2016, one of the group’s most high profile alumni is Scott Walker. It’s possible that no American politician who holds office today has worked harder to successfully advance ALEC’s agenda than Walker. And no previous candidate for the White House has ever owed so much to ALEC at the outset of his campaign.
Walker’s longstanding association with the group dates back to his first days as a state legislator in the early 1990s. One of the very first high-profile bills Walker was associated with during his time as a state legislator was a 1998 tough-on-crime ‘truth in sentencing’ bill that caused Wisconsin’s prison population to balloon.
At the time, Walker claimed original authorship of the law. But it wasn’t really his bill; ALEC’s policy shop wrote it at the behest of two ALEC funders: the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, formerly called Wackenhut. Soon after Gov. Tommy Thompson signed it into law, Walker introduced a second piece of legislation to open the state’s soon-to-grow prison system up to the two private prison companies.
At the time, Walker never publicly mentioned ALEC’s role in this legislation. State corrections officials say he never mentioned it privately either.
Instead it was only four years later, in 2002, that Walker disclosed and described the extent of ALEC’s involvement. Interviewed for a public radio-led investigation into prison privatization, Walker recalled, “clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation, and probably more important than just the model legislation, they had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation.”
In other words, ALEC had given Walker and his colleagues a ready-made kit, complete with statistics that attributed nationwide declines in crime to tougher sentencing policies in individual states that had adopted ALEC’s model sentencing legislation. Walker used his seat in Wisconsin’s state assembly to push for this bill, and soon after used it again to press for state-level policy changes that would directly aid ALEC’s corporate sponsors – companies that had a seat at the table where the organization’s model legislation was drafted and the clout to decide what policies ALEC’s legislator-members would be expected to carry water for in their home states.
Clearly ALEC’s role in this ongoing Wisconsin story is extensive, but we might never have known about it had Scott Walker not decided to tell it. Walker helped make Wisconsin’s prison system one of, if not the most, racially segregated in the nation. Yet even today he highlights this law as his biggest achievement during his tenure in the state legislature, and his official biography continues to give him sole credit as its “author.”
Walker’s relationship with ALEC didn’t end when he left the state legislature. As Milwaukee’s county executive, for example, he tried to privatize security at the county jail by declaring a fiscal emergency and granting himself special authority to nullify union contracts. Who got the privatization contract? Wackenhut. An arbitrator later ruled Walker had acted illegally, costing the county nearly $500,000 in fees.
But none of this compares to what ALEC’s sponsors have gained since Scott Walker was elected Wisconsin’s governor in 2010. Almost all of the accomplishments Walker lists in his stump speech originated as ALEC model bills. But Walker hasn’t just supported ALEC initiatives; he’s used the ready-made, heat-and-eat nature of ALEC’s model legislation to shortcut the ordinary lawmaking process in the state capital. Just as he did as a county executive, Walker’s governorship has featured unusual legislative maneuvers and a reliance on emergency special sessions to speed passage of ALEC-crafted bills. In Walker’s Wisconsin, sneak attacks are now the norm.
Initially, Walker said it wouldn’t be the way. One of his 2010 election campaign pledges was to end a longstanding practice used by prior governors and legislators of using their collaborative budget-writing process to sneak in little-noticed policy changes and special projects.
But that was a promise Walker broke almost immediately upon taking office in 2011. He soon declared a fiscal emergency and used it as an excuse to begin pursuing an aggressively conservative agenda via the state budget. Walker shut down a state program – implemented by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson – that collected data on police traffic stops to see whether Wisconsinites are being racially profiled. He shifted rule-making powers from independent agencies to ones he tightly controlled in ways that would soon benefit his largest contributors. This made it easier, for example, for landlords to steal security deposits from renters by rolling back tenants’ rights and other consumer protections relating to real estate. Walker also eliminated child day care support for state employees in that budget; he sought language that released Wisconsin health insurers from having to cover women’s contraceptive coverage in private market insurance plans.
That year, the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, an in-house state agency that provides analysis to lawmakers, flagged nine items in Walker’s very first piece of legislation – his ‘Budget Repair’ bill – that were ‘non-fiscal.’ Most of these ideas originated as ALEC model legislation, as were many of the fiscal items, too.
The most high-profile and divisive of these, of course, was one Walker had never mentioned on the campaign trail: eliminating the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits. Union busting has long been an ALEC priority, but so were other policy changes overlooked in Walker’s first budget: tort reforms, limits on jury punitive damages, regulatory compliance changes, limits on product liability awards, restrictions on expert court testimony, changes to automotive titles, giveaways to payday lenders, and changes to the way the state calculated the economic downside of the privatization of public services. None of these would seem to be directly tied to a near-term budget shortfall, but each reflected a piece of ALEC model legislation. (I’ve only named a few – the longer list is here.) The vast majority of these issues had not been raised during Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor. But as ALEC-backed items, they became a top priority in Walker’s office.
Since beginning preparations for a presidential run, Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike. In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state. Scott Fitzgerald, the state senate majority leader and former state chairman of ALEC’s Wisconsin chapter, said momentum for the bill had come from an ALEC meeting. You can see the video here.
Just what kind of momentum are we talking about?
Like Wisconsin’s bill, ‘right to work’ legislation that copied ALEC model legislation with near-verbatim precision was also introduced this year in Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan,Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and West Virginia.
[H/t Brendan Fischer of prwatch.org]
In Wisconsin, Fitzgerald’s bill followed a now-familiar course for ALEC measures in the state: it was presented to lawmakers during an emergency special session where it could be fast-tracked for approval. That means it was introduced on a Monday, sped through legislative committee hearings on a Tuesday, and was approved in a floor vote on Wednesday.
Walker signed it weeks later, despite having said just months earlier during his 2014 re-election campaign that would not support a ‘right to work’ bill in 2015. This echoed a statement he made in 2012 that he had “no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation in [Wisconsin]” because “private sector unions have overwhelmingly come to the table to be my partner in economic development.” Walker said he “would do everything” in his power to avoid signing such a law.
There were always reasons to doubt Walker’s sincerity. He’d backed a ‘right to work’ bill as a freshman legislator in 1993. And his 2012 pledge was made in the context of damage control after video surfaced of him laying out what he called a “divide and conquer” strategy of union-busting to a a billionaire donor who had asked how he intended to make Wisconsin “a completely red state.” “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill,” Walker had explained. “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer. That opens the door once we do that.”
Weeks later, he unveiled his first attack on public sector unions.
During the 2014 campaign, Walker’s Democratic opponent pointed out that the governor did not say he would veto a ‘right to work’ bill. Walker dismissed the claim. But once Scott Fitzgerald introduced the measure in 2015, Walker quickly reversed himself. “I’ve never said that I didn’t think it was a good idea,” he told reporters. “I’ve just questioned the timing in the past.”
ALEC, then, doesn’t just provide lawmakers with model legislation. It’s also helped build legislative coalitions willing to spring surprises on non-ALEC members and the public at large, something made easier by virtue of the fact that the current leaders of both chambers of the state legislature are former state chapter chairs of ALEC.
Moreover, through a partner organization called the State Policy Network, ALEC legislation routinely finds support from a stable of reliably conservative experts. The two organizations seem to have been behind a recent move by the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands to bar state employees from working on climate change-related subjects. That effort was guided by a former ALEC state chair, Mike Huebsch, a longtime Walker ally (the two apparently became friends when they partnered to get a prison chaplain fired because she was a Wiccan – an actual, honest to goodness witch hunt in the 21st century). Walker later appointed Huebsch to a top cabinet position and this year named him to the state’s utility regulation board. At his confirmation hearing this past April, he made headlines for claiming a single volcanic eruption produced more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars in the United States – a statement he later retracted.
This year, public education has been one of the key targets of ALEC-supported legislation in Wisconsin. The governor first tried to create a state-level charter school board that would have operated separately from the state’s ordinary education policymaking departments. The board would have forced local school boards to accept charter schools in their district which they did not support, diverting state funds from public schools toward privately-backed charters.
When that was too much for even Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature to bear, Walker revised the law (SB 76) to abandon the new appointed board while continuing to push for school privatization. In approving charter schools, local school boards are now be barred from considering the costs they’d impose on public schools in their districts. The law explicitly prevents teachers’ views from receiving a hearing. Moreover, if a charter school is deemed ‘high performing’ by Walker’s administration, that single school can open as many other charter schools as it wants, wherever it wants, without any local input at all.
Like Walker’s other ALEC initiatives, this bill was something of a sneak attack. The bill was heavily revised two days before it received a public hearing, too soon for a customary memo to be prepared explaining its intent and effects to other lawmakers. Then the committee hearing on the bill was scheduled to take place at the same time as a separate hearing on Common Core standards, an event sure to draw more attention from public school officials in the state (Hey, look over there!).
This year, another major education initiative to deregulate licensing standards for middle and high school teachers by requiring the state department of education to issue a teacher’s permit to anyone who was proficient in a subject matter, regardless of whether they majored in that subject in college, or went to college at all. The change was slipped into a state budget bill at1:30 in the morning and based on an ALEC model bill: the Alternative Certification Act. Walker insists it will allow the state to hire the best teachers in the country; his state’s schools superintendent said it made Wisconsin’s state teacher standards the lowest in the nation. “It doesn’t make sense,” said Superintendent Tony Evers, “We have spent years developing licensing standards to improve the quality of the teacher in the classroom, which is the most important school-based factor in improving student achievement. Now we’re throwing out those standards.”
As one lawmaker told me for this article: “after four years of Walker, you know what they’re calling us now?”
(If you’re a lawmaker, lobbyist, or Walker-watcher, I want to hear from you. Drop me a line:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Brian Murphy is a TPM contributing editor and Baruch College history professor who writes about the intersection of money and politics. He is the author of Building the Empire State: Political Economy in Early America. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @Burrite.