Tackling the ALEC problem

The nonprofit organization wants to sell citizens’ rights to its corporate members.

Matthew Hoy

My editor sent out an email last week about the semester’s last columns. He asked columnists to write on something we are passionate about and hit it hard. It’s in that spirit that I’m taking on the complex situation currently embroiling the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC, for those unfamiliar with the controversial 501(c)(3) organization, is a “nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.”

However, calling ALEC “nonpartisan” is like calling Fox News “fair and balanced.” ALEC works as a grassroots-level lobbying institution, with roughly 1,000 bills introduced annually based on its model legislation.

If that sounds illegal to you, members of ALEC might argue that your understanding of the law is not nearly nuanced enough to understand its function. Because the members of ALEC are involved in the legislative process, the council exists somewhere in the space between lobbying firm and charity. It’s this ambiguity that has allowed ALEC, through various avenues, to donate more than $150,000 in campaign contributions since 1995.

Under Internal Revenue Service code, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

I bring up ALEC’s penchant for illegal activities because it’s a hypocritical organization without regard for the well-being of society or the planet.

This is, after all, the organization whose members sponsored more than 31 voter ID laws in 2012. These laws claim to eradicate voter fraud — a problem that does not exist — but actually serve as thinly veiled attempts to disenfranchise minorities, the elderly and the disabled. The idea that stopping an extremely small amount of fraud justifies widespread voter suppression is an absurdity.

During the 2012 election, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai informed a Republican gathering that it was important to pass a voter ID bill because it would “allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

It’s this level of Machiavellianism that thought groups like ALEC have come to define. Major members of the organization, like ExxonMobil, have vested interests in fossil fuels, so ALEC has undergone one of the largest climate change denial campaigns in the world, going so far as to say that if the phenomenon — which, according to NASA, 97 percent of climate scientists agree is due to human activity — actually did exist, it would be beneficial for our planet.

ALEC took this to an even crazier extreme earlier this month when it decided to label those who use personal solar panels as “free riders.” It also modeled hypothetical legislation that would allow electricity companies to charge people for powering their own homes with a renewable source and adding any excess energy back into the grid.

In 2005, ALEC partnered with the National Rifle Association to create a model bill based on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. ALEC went on a multiyear campaign to encourage other state legislatures to introduce and pass similar bills. At that time, the corporate co-chair of ALEC was a representative from Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest guns and ammunition retailer.

The George Zimmerman trial and its media frenzy last year threatened ALEC membership. The Guardian published ALEC internal documents last week that said it has lost nearly 400 state legislators and 60 corporations during the past two years.

In an attempt to appear strong and well-off, ALEC sent an email to its members insisting that its public membership struggle was inaccurate and that membership actually increased.

This organization, which allows legislators and corporate donors to deduct membership fees as charitable donations, represents everything that is wrong with the American political landscape.

It exists without any voice representing the vast majority of Americans, who do not own a company, do not accept campaign contributions and are not in the top-earning 1 percent.

It takes advantage of definition loopholes to lower operating costs and pay less in taxes. It actively sells out human rights in order to raise profits for its corporate members.

It willingly and enthusiastically denounces scientific consensus via legislation that ignores our environment. Humanitarian organization DARA reported in September that if we don’t tackle climate change, 100 million people will die by 2030, and 90 percent of those killed will live in developing countries.

At worst, this is class warfare. At best, it’s a deliberate mishandling of funds to damage our environment, diminish minorities’ political efficacy and compromise the safety of American citizens in order for its corporate members to profit.

A list of ALEC members is available online, though the organization has tried its best to keep membership secret. Because of this, some have estimated the membership numbers through leaks of internal documents.

According to Parents United For Public Schools, 27 state representatives and state senators of Minnesota are ALEC members.

If one of these people represents you, I implore you: Vote for someone else during next election.