ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — is a corporate-funded organization based in Washington that provides training, support and other services to conservative state legislators all over the country.
One of its prime functions is to draft business-friendly “model legislation” that is then disseminated to state legislators around the country to be introduced and enacted. When you see a spate of similar bills suddenly pop up almost simultaneously in legislatures around the country, ALEC is almost always behind it.
For example, an increasing number of businesses are trying to get around minimum-wage, workers’ comp and overtime requirements by reclassifying their employees as “franchisees” — independent contractors with a business relationship to the larger company.
It’s a particularly popular approach in the janitorial-services industry. Instead of thousands of janitors on its payroll, a company will have thousands of “independent contractors” who supposedly operate as franchisees. Suddenly, none of the workplace laws apply, and workers are stripped of most of the legal protections they would otherwise enjoy.
ALEC is now championing passage of state laws that would make it hard if not impossible to legally challenge claims that workers are “independent contractors” or franchisees. Eearlier this year, with passage of House Bill 548, Georgia became the first state in the country to pass ALEC-drafted legislation on the issue, much to the glee of the International Franchise Association.
This year, Georgia legislators also spent what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time and energy congratulating themselves for passing a bill that put new restrictions on the scrap-metal recycling industry. But after reading the bill and comparing it to ALEC’s model legislation, their excitement became a little more understandable. (By the way, state Sen. Chip Rogers, the Senate majority leader, is national treasurer for ALEC.)
For years, ALEC operated below the radar and in relative secrecy, but more recently its efforts have begun to draw more publicity. An investigation by a New Jersey newspaper, for example, has documented that many of the education bills championed by Gov. Chris Christie bear an uncanny likeness to model legislation written by ALEC. (Christie’s spokesmen say that is a coincidence). The spate of voter-suppression bills popping up around the country — many of them ALEC-driven — have further raised the group’s profile and created controversy. ALEC also championed many of the “stand-your-ground” gun laws passed in recent years.
As an apparent result of that controversy, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola announced this week that it was ending its relationship with ALEC. “We have a longstanding policy of not taking positions on issues that don’t have a direct bearing on our company or on our industry,” a company spokesman said. Coke’s main rival, Pepsico, had already announced it was breaking ties with ALEC after 10 years.
It’s important to note that there’s nothing illegal about ALEC’s actions. However, the secrecy with which it operates and the influence that it wields so quietly are cause for alarm. Its meetings of state legislators are closed to the public, as are its list of donors and members and its database of model legislation (last year a whistleblower released some 800 of those bills, which is how we know what little we know.)
Lobbyists and lawyers who help write ALEC’s model legislation in Washington know the issues quite well; they know all the little ways in which the law can be twisted to their clients’ advantage. Those bills are then taken back home and introduced in state legislatures with no warning of where they originated or who is really behind them. (There are exceptions, of course. Last year a Florida state representative introduced a resolution calling for lower corporate income taxes, but forgot to strip out language indicating it had been written by ALEC.)
The result is a system in which a centralized core of special interests, based in Washington, exert a strong and often untraceable influence on state laws and legislators, many of whom frankly don’t understand or in some cases don’t care how they’re being used.
In our own case, it produces laws drafted not to respond to Georgia problems or to protect Georgia citizens, but to secretly benefit interests that really don’t give a whit about the state.
– Jay Bookman