For years, liberal interest groups have slagged the American Legislative Exchange Council as a front for right-wing legislators and their supporters among the corporate elite. And with good reason. Corporations and corporate and industrial trade groups formed ALEC and still appear to control the group’s policy-making, legislation-writing apparatus.
ALEC’s other side is its legislative membership. The group proudly proclaims on its website that it has 2,000 state-level legislators as members, presumably ready to advance its right-leaning agenda. And advance that agenda they do.
Privatizing education, ditching workers safety and environmental protections, thwarting efforts to develop alternative energy, blocking gun control — the history of ALEC is a history of the modern right and its successes and failures.
ProgressNow Nevada, coordinating with the national Center for Media and Democracy, released a report last week that documented the fact that a number of Nevada legislators are, or have been, members of ALEC. Most of the names are no surprise. For example, Sen. Barbara Cegavske, a Las Vegas Republican, has long been a standard-bearer of Nevada’s conservative movement. She is listed as ALEC’s state chair from 2010 to the present.
“ALEC provides me a forum to talk about what the people of Nevada want and how other legislators are meeting those needs in their states,” Cegavske said. “It is a place for me to learn about what works and what does not, and to hear other approaches I might not have considered. I like to think of my membership in ALEC as a tool in my toolkit for being a good legislator, and as most people know, trying to build something without all of the necessary tools is pretty difficult.”
Nine other legislators are listed as current members. ALEC, a nonprofit, tax-exempt group, does not disclose its corporate or legislative membership, but some members are publicly identified because they lead ALEC committees or have in some other way acknowledged membership.
ProgressNow’s report listed two Assembly members and seven senators along with Cegavske. The liberal interest group said it identified Nevada’s members (along with 23 former members) through legislators’ contribution and expense reports, news reports, references from ALEC including the conservative group’s website, and legislative biographies.
There was one surprise on the list: Sen. David Parks, a Las Vegas Democrat and Nevada’s first self-identified gay legislator.
Parks said by e-mail that his membership actually lapsed in December, but he was never a fellow-traveler for the radical right.
“Not to be too flippant but I’ve been a member in the past because the membership is cheap and I get lots of their publications, as well as invites to programs that they underwrite,” he said. “ The last time that I attended an ALEC event was 2001. Early in my career as an elected official, legislators were encouraged to be members because Sen. [Bill] Raggio [the late former Senate Republican leader from Reno] was an officer of ALEC.
“As an elected official, I feel that I have a responsibility to my constituents to follow what the ‘other side’ is saying and doing. Oftentimes, ALEC puts forward the opposition viewpoint which solidifies my perspective,” Parks said. “It is also helpful to be able to see a proposed bill come in front of me and be able to say to myself, ‘Okay, that’s an ALEC bill. Be cautious.’”
ProgressNow says ALEC is secretive and reports that the Nevada Legislature, which pays for trips by legislators to ALEC’s conferences and annual membership dues, would not release correspondence between ALEC and its legislative members in Nevada because “disclosure of the correspondence would inevitably reveal the Senators’ deliberations.” That, the Nevada group says, is a smoking gun that proves ALEC’s deep influence in state politics.
While the ProgressNow report reveals many financial and legislative connections between ALEC, its corporate supporters and Nevada’s legislators, it also reveals a curious contradiction. For all the alleged influence of this “shadowy” and “secretive” group, ALEC’s record of legislative success in Nevada is dismal.
Of 20 proposed bills that were, ProgressNow argues, based on “model bills” that are distributed around to state legislators at ALEC’s annual national meetings, since 2007 only one has passed into law in Nevada: the Foster Child Scholarship Program Act of 2007. That bill gave state-supported scholarships to foster children which they could use to attend private or religious k-12 schools.
ProgressNow Nevada Executive Director Brian Fadie said ALEC’s lack of accomplishment in the Silver State doesn’t provide much comfort. In states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, major anti-labor and pro-school privatization efforts have been passed into law, he noted.
“While ALEC has not been as successful in recent years in Carson City, that has not stopped them from trying,” he said. “It only takes one piece of bad legislation to have a major impact. We’ve seen what ALEC legislation has done in states like Florida and Wisconsin, where voting rights and worker’s rights have regressed. If we want to keep these pro-corporate bills at bay we have to remain vigilant.”