Where Bad Bills Come From

Where Bad Bills Come From

Meet ALEC, the organization proudly devoted to drafting pro-corporate laws for legislators.


On April 23—the day after Earth Day—Paul Driessen addressed a rapt audience of state legislators who had come from around the country to talk about climate change and energy policy. "Global warming is a huge moral issue," he proclaimed—just not in the way you may think. "Hydrocarbons are the lifeblood of our economy and society. The benefits are almost too numerous to count," he told the crowd, which filled the hotel ballroom in St. Louis with rousing applause. His message: the energy these fossil fuels produce is "fundamental to the pursuit of happiness and justice," and Congress, the EPA and UN-backed scientists are out to seize control of your state’s economy and rob the world’s poor of their life, liberty and any last hope for prosperity.

Driessen is a well-known conservative writer, PR flack and climate change denier, and he was speaking at the Spring Task Force meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which brings together state legislators and corporate lobbyists to trade ideas and draft model legislation. The country’s largest corporations—ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Peabody Energy, to name a few—buy a seat at the table and pick up the check. "If you’ve got a special interest that needs a bill," says Mark Pocan, a Democratic state legislator who is co-chair of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee, "they’ve got a lobbyist that helps the process." ALEC even gives directly to state legislators—more than $47,000 in the 2007–08 election cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Most of this money was given as reimbursements for travel to conferences, but ALEC did not report any of the money on its 2008 tax return, as it should have. What’s more, legislators deposited some of the checks into their campaign accounts without specifying what they were for, and tax-exempt nonprofits like ALEC are forbidden from contributing to campaigns. If any of this money was used for campaigning, it would be in violation of ALEC’s tax status. The money certainly brought legislators to St. Louis, where Driessen implored them to take his message home. "You can make a difference by educating yourselves, voters and other legislators," he said. And with ALEC’s help, they had already begun.

Legislators in at least nineteen states have announced resolutions opposing federal action on climate change. The bulk of them—ten of which have passed at least one legislative house—take aim at the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, asking Congress to delay or pre-empt the agency’s decision to crack down on global warming pollution beginning in 2012. Lurking behind this coordinated effort are ALEC and a web of fossil fuel industry–funded organizations gaming to undermine science, influence public opinion and remove the best tool the United States has to prevent catastrophic warming.

The bills match the goal of model legislation drafted in 2008 by ALEC’s Natural Resources Task Force (currently co-chaired by representatives from the American Gas Association and a major energy utility, along with a legislator from Indiana). Co-sponsors of resolutions in at least ten states either have signed an ALEC letter to Senator Harry Reid asking Congress to strip EPA authority or are members of the organization.

"I think we’re taking a snapshot view of climate change and trying to implement policy based on that snapshot," says Jeff Duncan, who sponsored legislation in the South Carolina Statehouse. Duncan says he learned about climate change from conferences and papers from ALEC, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. In 2007 ALEC wrote Duncan a $1,328 travel reimbursement check that was deposited in his campaign fund. He says his legislation did not come out of ALEC specifically.

The resolutions, however, share language citing misinformation peddled by these groups (that temperatures have been flat or decreasing for years, for example). Authors have peppered them with the same "facts" Driessen and other industry-funded deniers use to fan fears of the great economic devastation that federal regulation would supposedly wreak. And at the April meeting, ALEC passed a model bill that would have states pull out of regional climate initiatives, previewing its next push.

This is not the first time ALEC has fought corporate America’s battles against action on climate change. After George W. Bush’s election and subsequent rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, states began passing their own global warming bills—more than 150 from 2001 to 2003, according to ALEC. ExxonMobil and its foundation responded by more than quadrupling its support over these years, to $368,000. ALEC published a report opposing the Kyoto Protocol, written by the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, a famous climate change denier. Over the next few years, the organization continued to fight against Kyoto and petitioned the Bush administration to knock down "rogue" state efforts to combat climate change. States’ rights is the rallying cry only when convenient.

Founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and other conservative strategists, ALEC started as a small organization devoted to conservative ideals. In the 1980s it began soliciting the private sector’s involvement in order to tap into the great stream of corporate money. ALEC formed its issue-based task forces, jointly run by corporate representatives and state legislators, to write and approve model legislation, which members can then bring back to statehouses. The organization claims almost 2,000 members, nearly a third of all state legislators. "It’s not quite as bad as a cult," Pocan says, "but it’s very effective nonetheless." Pocan has been following ALEC for years, going so far as to join the organization and attend one of its meetings. "Once you’re there it’s kind of a smorgasbord for lobbyists." He described corporate representatives—whose employers paid handsomely for this face time—armed with model legislation and talking points being grouped with lawmakers based on geography. Duncan, who has attended a number of ALEC conferences, calls the organization a "very valuable resource" for state legislators.

A particularly glaring example of buying influence came in 1996, when two of ALEC’s biggest supporters, Enron and Koch Industries, formed a coalition of industrial players to purchase a majority voting bloc on their task force. Over the objection of the utilities, Enron and company pushed through model legislation recommending that states deregulate their electricity markets over the next few years. "It’s a situation where you buy a seat at the table and then you have the opportunity to vote and drive policy," a representative from the utilities told a reporter at the time. "We don’t have enough votes." Months later, Enron’s Kenneth Lay came with a $20,000 donation to give the keynote speech at ALEC’s national meeting, urging legislators to reject regulations, much as Driessen would thirteen years later.

These tactics continue today and have tremendous influence. "I have seen bill after bill introduced in our legislature where you can just tell ALEC was involved," says Pocan. A report released in May by the American Association for Justice detailed a recent example in which Crown Holdings, a major packaging company, was concerned about asbestos-related lawsuits that had accumulated against another company it had acquired years earlier. On behalf of Crown and with the help of a Washington lobbying firm, ALEC pushed legislation that in effect awards Crown immunity from the claims, even as thousands of former workers die from exposure—it has passed in thirteen states. These are just a handful of the 115 bills that were enacted across the country last year based on ALEC models, out of more than 800 introduced. The organization is also behind efforts in dozens of states to nullify the healthcare overhaul with model legislation openly written under the guidance of a health insurance executive.

While ALEC claims to be a membership organization that merely "unites members of the public and private sectors in a dynamic partnership," the power structure is clear. Two corporate donations in 2008—$56,000 from ExxonMobil and $38,000 from the American Petroleum Institute—brought in more than all the membership dues, which provide just over 1 percent of the organization’s $7 million annual budget. The rest comes in gifts and grants from the nation’s largest corporations, trade groups and their foundations.

Andy Gussert, director of Citizens Trade Campaign, has been monitoring ALEC for years. "ALEC does this incredible job of putting Plato’s form of perfect corporate policy out there," he says. "Then they also pay to facilitate future fundraising for these legislators at the conference." But, Gussert says, "at the heart of this it’s just a hub to get government relations people from business in the same room as them talking policy, and then in the same room talking fundraising."

ALEC gave more than $1,700 to sponsors of the EPA resolutions during the last election cycle. But its members or recent supporters gave far more—State Senator Tim Huelskamp of Kansas got $2,000 from Koch Industries, $1,200 from ConocoPhillips and related companies, and $600 from ExxonMobil. Money to other sponsors includes a $13,500 donation from MidAmerican Energy, $5,000 from Peabody and thousands more.

ALEC would not comment for this article, but in 1997 ALEC’s Dennis Bartlett explained how the organization works. "Our members join for the purpose of having a seat at the table. That’s just what we do," he said. "The organization is supported by money from the corporate sector, and, by paying to be members, corporations are allowed the opportunity to sit down at the table and discuss the issues that they have an interest in."

The EPA resolutions themselves are largely symbolic. States have no authority over the EPA, so they simply ask Congress or the EPA not to regulate greenhouse gases. But the statement is exactly what ALEC and its allies are going for. "We’re in a period of carpet-bombing or brush-fire tactics from the other side," says Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace. The resolutions are primarily intended to generate news, Davies and others say, and to shift debate. Unwittingly or not, the bills’ authors have taken the lies fed to them by ALEC model legislation and Heartland talking points and moved them into public discussion.

The argument that local economies—particularly in states that produce or are heavily reliant on fossil fuels—are vulnerable to federal regulation is an easy one to make when most of the country has soured on Washington’s handling of the economy. "It’s taking money from South Carolina rate-payers and giving to other states that may have been blessed with hydropower or other resources," says Duncan. But at the heart of the legislation is a distrust of the very notion that climate change is a threat. Duncan, for one, says he does not believe in global warming.

However genuine or local his and others’ concerns, much of the data they cite comes from a coordinated effort by energy companies to sow doubt. A number of bills refer to the "Climategate" scandal, in which hacked e-mails from British climate scientists supposedly revealed a conspiracy to manufacture data supporting the argument that humans are driving climate change. Never mind that Britain’s Parliament debunked the claim: the scandal nonetheless was bounced around by a web of corporate-funded organizations, as detailed in a recent report by Greenpeace. The report shows how the Cato Institute and other groups—a number of which have received more than $1 million each since 2005 from fossil fuel giant Koch Industries—created an echo chamber through blogs, TV news and talking points that has now influenced law. ALEC’s Energy and Environment page features papers from Cato, the Mercatus Center, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Energy Research, each of which has received money from Koch. ALEC’s Board of Scholars includes a Heritage trustee and fellows from Cato and the American Enterprise Institute. And the amount of money supporting these groups is tremendous—almost $25 million from Koch and nearly $9 million from ExxonMobil from 2005 to 2008. "These organizations were built to fight against regulations," Davies says. "Now you have the biggest fight ever."

There are those on the other side, like the Coalition of Legislators for Energy Action Now, who are pushing for action on climate change. More than a thousand state legislators signed on to a CLEAN letter asking Congress for a comprehensive climate bill, and they’ve introduced their own resolutions in a few states. But they are up against a formidable, well-funded foe.

With Obama in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, corporate groups have turned to more local Astroturf efforts. State legislators, often part-time and understaffed, are easier targets anyway. In their efforts to fight or destroy any hope we have for reining in carbon emissions, these groups are taking the advice of ALEC’s former director Samuel Brunelli, who twenty years ago said it plainly: "Take the countryside, and the capital will fall." ALEC’s goal, he said, is to ensure that "state legislators are so well informed, so well armed, that they can set the terms of the public policy debate…. This is the infrastructure that will reclaim the states for our movement; these are the people who will make conservative policy; this is our army that we must prepare and support for the battles at hand."

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