Unless you’ve been a state legislator, served on legislative staff, been a reporter covering a state capitol beat, or a state government relations professional, chances are you hadn’t heard much of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, until the last several months. In recent months, ALEC has become a target of a sloppily-orchestrated, but well-funded effort by conspiracy theorists and anarchists (think “Occupy”) who care more about creating another dark, sinister boogeyman to scare you rather than honestly and seriously confronting the challenges before us.
I’ve been intimately involved with ALEC for over fifteen years. I thought I’d share an honest perspective about ALEC and what it is and isn’t, rather than have you fall prey to the nonsense-chanting, drum-beaters in the tin foil hats. First, ALEC doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A number of legislative organizations similar to ALEC exist across the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), like ALEC, brings together legislators and policymakers from across the country who listen to and work with members of the private sector in an effort to promote public policy and learn about what’s worked -- and what hasn’t worked -- in their respective states.
Both organizations communicate with federal lawmakers and the federal bureaucracy to identify how federal policies impact states, how policies can be implemented more effectively, where states can do a better job of achieving certain objectives and where taxpayer dollars can be applied most fairly and effectively in meeting identified societal needs. In addition to ALEC and NCSL, a wide range of other groups fulfill similar missions, such as the Council of State Governments (CSG), the State Legislative Leaders’ Foundation (SLLF), the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and others.
ALEC is being portrayed as something different than some of those groups. And, ALEC is different. It’s different in that it adheres to it’s very open and publicly-stated philosophy of advancing the “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government and the general public.” I’ll give you an example of how that plays out in practice. When the federal government imposes mandates upon the states (i.e. Medicaid) while some groups might seek higher federal funding levels or more flexibility to fulfill those mandates, because of its limited government philosophy, a group like ALEC might be more inclined to oppose the mandates outright or suggest even more freedom for states to fulfill a mission (i.e. providing healthcare for the poor) in their own ways, less-restricted (or unrestricted) by federal controls.
Many of the recent attacks on ALEC seem to focus to a great extent on ALEC’s work to promote “model legislation” to be considered in states across the country as some sort of devious plot to avoid the legislative process in the states. Nothing could be further from the truth. These absurd attacks ignore the reality that other groups promote goals and objectives in public policy all the time. It’s a lengthy and tedious process to have proposed legislation achieve “model bill” status endorsed by groups such as NCSL or ALEC. And these “model bills,” if introduced by a legislator in a particular state, have no special status or fast-track to becoming law. They are merely bills written and introduced by a legislator, that must go through the exact same legislative process as any other bill introduced in that state. They must be drafted and introduced by an elected legislator, they’re distributed for cosponsorship opportunities, they’re written about and reported on by the media, and they must go through the committee and legislative process in two houses of the state legislature (except for Nebraska which is a unicameral) and be discussed, debated, criticized, lauded, amended and voted upon -- all subject to the same open records and open meetings requirements as any other piece of legislation.
There is nothing nefarious or scary about ALEC (or NCSL). In fact, as someone who has worked with and been involved with both organizations, I strongly believe that both play an important role in the public policy process. First of all, both bring together legislators from across the country to discuss common problems they face in their states. Policymakers learn from legislative colleagues (and yes, regulated industries, academics and think tanks) how different approaches have worked, or have failed, in other states. Those policymakers benefit from the wisdom of those with greater experience and familiarity with issues than they may have themselves. And those who have confronted problems in their states are afforded the opportunity to share their wisdom and experience with others who benefit from it.
I have served as a state private sector chairman for ALEC and I’ve previously served over ten years on both ALEC’s “Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development” and “Tax & Fiscal Policy” task forces. I’ve worked to support model resolutions for consideration, given presentations to task forces and been involved in the shaping of policy. I’ve also worked to promote public policy objectives within NCSL. In fact, it’s not strange for some legislation to be endorsed and supported by both ALEC and NCSL (particularly when it involves the federal government mandating unfunded or underfunded activity to be implemented at the state level). And endorsement of a policy shouldn’t bring with it the suggestion than it is anything more than it is -- proposed legislative solutions that have been discussed, debated and supported by organizations that represent the state perspective in the federal/state balance of power.
Vigorous debates and dialogue within ALEC task forces provide extraordinary opportunities for legislators to be exposed to expert (and widely varying) opinions on the issues confronting their particular states. While it might be difficult for an Australian expert on public/private transportation partnerships to visit all fifty states and share Australia’s experience with the issue, that expert can visit ALEC or NCSL and be heard by legislators from around the entire country. Isn’t it better to give policymakers opportunity to hear and participate in significant discussion, debate and consideration of issues with the benefit of hearing from a variety of voices from other states, scholars from around the world and from those in a particular industry who will be affected by the proposals?
Much of the criticism you may have seen or will continue to see about ALEC seems to be centered around the fact that the private sector is involved in ALEC and the ALEC process. Frankly, this as a strength of ALEC, rather than a detriment. And as much as the critics would have you believe that the private sector speaks to these issues from a unified voice, nothing could be further from the truth.
While industry can be unified on an issue, they are just as likely to be divided on issues. I’ll give you an example. All states and the federal government face challenges in building and maintaining transportation infrastructure -- roads and bridges. State transportation policies vary from state to state. State fuel taxes work in different ways. Some state gas taxes are indexed for inflation, while others are flat taxes. Some state gas taxes may go to the general fund, others may be dedicated exclusively to a transportation fund (which may or may not be raided by state leaders). Federal gas taxes are applied at the state level and sent to Washington. Some states get more money back from the federal government than others do. Some states face challenges in building highways through rural areas connecting population centers and others are home to large urban communities with vast infrastructure needs.
When such issues are discussed and debated within the framework of an ALEC (or NCSL) task force or committee, the public members of that task force (who largely are committee members or chairpersons of transportation committees in their respective states) hear from professors who spend their lives studying transportation funding around the world. They might hear from international experts who explain how crowded highway issues were confronted successfully in London or Hong Kong or how roads are funded and built across the vast continent of Australia. They might hear from the truckers union representatives whose members’ livelihoods are impacted by various methods of funding roads. They might hear from private companies such as Federal Express or UPS that rely upon roadways to deliver goods, while remaining profitable and continuing to employ people across the country. They might hear from experts on tax policy about the pros and cons of various funding methods. And, they might hear from representatives of the US Department of Transportation and various state transportation officials and legislative colleagues across the country. From all of these perspectives, members learn what some like about different alternatives, what they don’t like, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and how constituents liked or didn’t like specific proposals in their states.
The end result? Those legislators who serve on that ALEC task forces are vastly better informed than they otherwise would be. They understand issues from a myriad of perspectives they might not have as an isolated member of a legislative committee in Idaho or Mississippi. Additionally, they’ve developed personal and professional relationships with international experts and legislative colleagues across the country and they’re able to pick up the phone to explore issues as they confront them in their states. They are better legislators because of their willingness to spend time and energy as a member of an ALEC task force.
And despite the nonsense you may hear from ALEC critics, if these task forces reach consensus and agree on “model legislation” or a “resolution” or “statement of principles” related to a policy challenge, does the legislation get any special treatment if they choose to introduce it in their states? Nope. It’s introduced. It’s discussed in committee. It’s debated. The public can weigh in and testify, the private sector can testify, state departments may testify and they still need to pass a bill through committee, pass both houses of the legislature and be presented to the Governor who is free to sign it or veto it and in some cases line-item veto the parts out that he or she doesn’t support. That is what democracy looks like.
In all of my years working in the political, public policy and government affairs arena, I’ve had occasion to work for a US Senator, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, State Senator and a State Representative in addition to over fifteen years of work in state government relations. On almost a weekly basis, I meet with or communicate with state legislators from across the country. Without exception, I recommend that they get involved with groups like ALEC, NCSL, CSG, SLLF and other legislative and policy groups across the country. I recommend that they get to know their colleagues, share their expertise and experience, and benefit from that of others. And I can tell you that those who choose that path and are willing to give up significant portions of their time and put effort in becoming more engaged and informed by involvement with groups like ALEC are among the best elected representatives this country has to offer.
So when you see the well-funded and coordinated attacks against ALEC that you are likely to see in the coming months, please recognize them for what they are -- a misleading, unfair, inaccurate political attacks and nothing more.