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In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting and Florida’s newly infamous Stand Your Ground law, many are beginning to look into one source of the law—the secretive, low-profile, highly influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Many activists—including some in the immigration world—have been trying to expose ALEC and its shady dealings for awhile. But now the outrage is gaining new traction.
First of all, what is ALEC? New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explains it best:
Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.
Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.
What this tells us, in turn, is that ALEC’s claim to stand for limited government and free markets is deeply misleading. To a large extent the organization seeks not limited government but privatized government, in which corporations get their profits from taxpayer dollars, dollars steered their way by friendly politicians. In short, ALEC isn’t so much about promoting free markets as it is about expanding crony capitalism.
In a follow-up blog, he gives an example:
Look, in particular, at the semi-secret history of the Arizona immigration law. A legislator goes into a closed-door meeting with corporations, including a big operator of private prisons, and soon afterwards submits legislation that … sends lots of people to those private prisons.
This isn’t just theoretical. As we wrote in 2010 after the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, there is a whole slew of prison contracting companies, lobbyists, and politicians they donate to who personally benefit from anti-immigrant laws that lock up more people. A Think Progress analysis at the time found that ALEC itself is partially funded by the private prison conglomerate Corrections Corporation of America. Get it? Private interests fund groups like ALEC, which push legislation that makes money for those private interests, and politicians and lobbyists win while everyone with an interest in rational state and local policy loses.
That’s just the beginning. In addition to crafting bills and shopping them around to friendly legislative sponsors, ALEC also works to create an environment conducive to its pro-corporate, pro-privatization goals. Part of that involves relationships with sympathetic legislators. And part of it involves a long term strategy of building and exploiting public fears. The Center for American Progress explains this, particularly what it has to do with the rash of anti-immigrant legislation that has spread across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and other places within the last year:
The only plausible explanation for the continued advance of these initiatives is the politics of division. These state initiatives did not organically materialize in response to local frustrations and they fail to provide a solution to legitimate concerns that exist with our broken immigration system. State-level conservative activists, working in concert with national anti-immigrant organizations, orchestrated them. ALEC, a membership organization for conservative state legislators, pushed out these initiatives to legislators around the country. Anti-immigrant groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR—an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a hate group—then actively promoted them.
Their strategy is simple but effective. The nativist groups use their grassroots operations to whip local restrictionists into a frenzy and incite fear and confusion in the general population. Then ALEC arms conservative legislators in those states with model anti-immigrant legislation purportedly designed to respond to this groundswell of nativism.
It’s a win-win for xenophobes and conservative legislators. Hard-line immigration restrictionists get the platform and policy change they covet while conservative legislators are rewarded with an energized segment of voters. This enables the legislators to protect their seats temporarily in the face of shifting demographics and a changing electorate.
Arizona has one of the highest concentrations of ALEC legislators of any state in the country, which as Daily Kos notes today, has only led to punitive legislation like the “papers, please” SB 1070 anti-immigrant law, the attempted elimination of public sector benefits for same-sex partners, the shuttering of all rural Planned Parenthood clinics in the state, the removal of 100,000 people from state Medicaid rolls, and much, much more.
How far the rabbit hole goes—how pervasive ALEC’s influence is, how widely it pushes its legislation, the insidious methods it uses to promote a climate of fear and xenophobia—is “really upsetting stuff,” as Krugman writes in the follow-up blog:
Doing the research, I found myself feeling as if I had turned over a rock and found a lot of creepy-crawly things underneath…
If you read the corrections to that report, you see that ALEC and/or its clients went over the piece with a fine-toothed comb to find anything that they could attack; sure, you can’t prove that Corrections Corporation of America inspired the law, or that ALEC lobbied for it. Hey, it could all be a coincidence.
But this is really, really creepy — and scary.