By Bill Minor
With all the hullabaloo about the IRS clamping down on federal tax exemptions for Tea Party and kindred organizations, public attention has been diverted from a bigger threat: groups that are fronts for corporate giants who secretly warp state governments to suit their interests.
Several weeks ago the Mississippi mouthpiece for the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise ALEC, blasted me for writing critically about ALEC. Such an innocent-sounding outfit must not be dangerous, huh? We’ll see.
Steve Seale, identified as chairman of an ALEC advisory council, also happens to be the highest-paid lobbyist who prowls legislative halls at Mississippi’s state house. He wrote that I was “misguided,” in characterizing ALEC, plus some other less-flattering potshots, for not understanding ALEC is just a good old American “think tank” that is growing ideas to make the country better.
A think tank it is, all right, but its thinking is just a mirror image of some of the nation’s biggest corporate bullies such as the billionaire industrialists David and Robert Koch who are not concerned about what everyday people think. You remember how Mitt Romney got a big horse laugh when he said “corporations are people.”
What sets ALEC apart from other lobby outfits is that it operates like a shadow state government, each year convening a mock legislature as a vehicle for its corporate members to inject their own “model” bills into the actual agenda of numerous legislatures. Dozens of state lawmakers are hauled, expenses-paid to some resort where a pack of corporate lobbyists and some corporate bigwigs gave them a several day brainwashing as they are wined and dined, even furnished free cigars by Reynolds American and the Cigar Association of America. (The Cigar Association of America? Is Smokey the Bear their official mascot?)
Recently, a PBS special report, “United States of ALEC” produced by noted journalist Bill Moyers dug into secretive inner operations of ALEC and revealed some stunning findings of how the corporate culture manipulates state governments. Moyers showed that ALEC feeds 1,000 of its own “model” bills to state lawmakers and some 200 are enacted by a number of states. ALEC’s bills range from making it harder for Americans to vote, restricting restitution to workers killed or injured while working for corporations, blocking climate change agreements and even, as was discovered in coverage of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, ALEC’s behind the scenes role in the “stand your ground” law.
In Moyers’ report, a Wisconsin legislator, Rep. Mark Pocan, deliberately joined ALEC in order to attend an ALEC session in New Orleans, met by a pack of corporate lobbyists at the convention hotel. Some corporate CEOs were also on hand to educate legislators. (Is this the democratic “exchange” of information Seale talks about?) Pocan says lawmakers were wined and dined for several days before being sent home with their packet of “model” bills. How many Mississippi legislators have been sopping up ALEC’s largesse is not clear, but some even list ALEC in their biography.
ALEC’s tax-free grip on state legislatures for several years has been a major concern to Common Cause, the longtime citizens’ lobby which concentrates on open government and free press issues. Last year, Common Cause’s national office filed with the IRS a whistle-blower complaint charging ALEC with violating its tax exemption as a charity under 501(c)(3) and was spending millions to lobby state legislatures. With the filing, Common Cause filed thousands of pages of documents it had obtained that included talking points, “issue alerts,” and expense-paid invitations to legislators to attend gatherings where state laws are discussed.
Top officials of Common Cause said “ALEC is a corporate lobby front group masquerading as a public charity.” While the wealthy Koch brothers have been most prominently identified as ALEC backers, others have included Walmart, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Pfizer and several huge companies. In recent months as ALEC’s true mission has become known, some of its big backers have pulled out.
At least we should be grateful to Steve Seale for coming out of the closet as ALEC’s spokesman. Hope this piece doesn’t get him fired, since ALEC hates exposure.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman firstname.lastname@example.org.