Protests At ALEC Convention Swell To Thousands

9 Aug

Pictured is the lobby at the Palmer House Hilton hotel in downtown Chicago. The American Legislative Exchange Council reportedly uses a secret "slush fund" to fund lavish events, like their 40th anniversary party at the Palmer House Hilton. (Photo/John Walker via Flickr)

By Martin Michaels / Mint Press News

Pictured is the lobby at the Palmer House Hilton hotel in downtown Chicago. The American Legislative Exchange Council reportedly uses a secret “slush fund” to fund lavish events, like their 40th anniversary party at the Palmer House Hilton. (Photo/John Walker via Flickr)

UPDATE: What started as a small protest against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)’s annual convention in Chicago, Ill. has mushroomed into a thousands-strong demonstration of people representing unions and labor groups.

Critics of the conservative lobby group turned out in droves to protest ALEC-drafted bills this week, with many believing that the group’s work with legislators and corporations has undermined the rights of organized labor and lower-income Americans. Protesters carrying signs gathered outside the Palmer Hotel Thursday, shouting “Shame on you!”

Natasha Lennard of Salon sums it up:

“For many liberal and left political groups, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come to symbolize everything wrong with U.S. politics. The lobbying, bill-writing group bring together big industry interests with state politicians to both draft and push forward versions of their cookie-cutter legislation nationwide, with a conservative, neoliberal agenda towards privatization and the decimation of labor rights.”

The original article, “Do Lavish Trips Funded By ALEC Count As ‘Lobbying’ — Or Bribery?”, published Aug. 8, appears below:

As the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) opens its 40th annual meeting in Chicago, Ill. Wednesday, opponents of the conservative lobby group are ratcheting up protests claiming that ALEC financed trips, junkets and policy conferences for elected officials may constitute illegal bribery. Carrying that message was a group of roughly 40 protesters who packed the lobby of the Palmer Hotel, protesting ALEC-backed legislation that opponents believe will hurt low income Americans and public education. Six were arrested during the nonviolent protest.

“It’s an anti–public education group,” said Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) Vice President Jesse Sharkey in a statement to The Nation magazine. “They’ve supported charter laws, they want to turn on privatization in schools full-blast.”


ALEC getaways

The annual ALEC meetings are nothing new, but the opposition has increased in recent years as the clout of the corporate funded group grows. During 2013, 117 ALEC-sponsored bills have been introduced across the U.S. including new right to work legislation, voter ID laws and stand your ground laws that opponents claim undermine collective bargaining rights and lower wages for union and non-union workers.

It’s the method of ALEC lobbying that has become nearly as controversial as the legislation it promotes. Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy, two political watchdog organizations, have teamed up to draw attention to ALEC’s scholarship fund, which uses money to finance trips for hundreds of state officials across all 50 states, 2,000 of whom are official members of the group.

“The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is running a secretive, multimillion dollar slush fund that finances lavish trips for state legislators and has misled the Internal Revenue Service about the fund’s activity, two government watchdog groups charged today,” The Center for Media and Democracy posted in a press release this week.

Here’s how it works. Corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and Kraft provide upward of 90 percent of funding for ALEC operations. These funds allow ALEC to invite elected officials to getaways for all-expenses-paid events, including flights, hotel rooms and meals.

Elected officials are even encouraged to bring their families along and are offered subsidized child care for kids six months and older called “Kids Congress.”

During ALEC meetings, corporate executives sit alongside legislators and work with elected officials in closed door meetings to approve “model” legislation. In many cases, controversial state voter-id laws, stand your ground and right to work have their origins at ALEC conferences.

Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy now say that the “scholarship fund” that enables corporate members to work with elected officials raises serious questions about ALEC’s compliance with state gift and disclosure laws, and the ethics of lawmakers who accept ALEC’s travel payments. Of the 1,000 or so ALEC-backed bills introduced on the state level each year, roughly 200 become law annually according to one report by Bloomberg Businessweek.


Is it bribery?

What do the laws say about this type of activity? On the federal level, the Public Law for the 113th Congressstates that someone is guilty of bribery if he “directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers or promises anything of value to any public official or person who has been selected to be a public official, or offers or promises any public official or any person who has been selected to be a public official to give anything of value to any other person or entity, with intent to either … influence any official act; or influence such public official or person who has been selected to be a public official to commit or aid in committing, or collude in, or allow, any fraud, or make opportunity for the commission of any fraud, on the United States.”

The bulk of ALEC lobbying takes part on the state level, making it more difficult to trace the legality of the paid retreats, since state laws vary considerably on this issue.

Some sanction gifts up to a certain dollar amount if they are disclosed publicly. Virginia, for example, has a $10,000 threshold for statewide politicians and legislators to identify sources of income, and is the highest in the nation.

Additionally, Politifact reports that Virginia is currently one of 13 states that sets no financial limits on the gifts its governor may directly accept from lobbyists and others transacting government business.

The bottom line is that ALEC lobbying may be sanctioned in some states and not in others.


ALEC protests increase

For opponents, protests still center around the content of the legislation rather than the method of its passage. As ALEC opened its annual convention this week The Nation reports that a small group representing labor, community and environmental groups from throughout the Midwest was present. “We want to expose them, and we want people to understand exactly who they are,” says AFSCME president Lee Saunders.

Given its work on education, the environment, voter ID and other issues, “ALEC is pushing an agenda that negatively impacts all people who work for a living, whether they’re in a union or not,” says CFL Secretary-Treasurer Bob Reiter.

“Targeting ALEC would certainly be in labor’s self-interest: anti-worker and anti-union legislation has been a central focus of the group, with model legislation that includes ‘right to work’ laws, repealing the minimum wage and opposing future minimum wage increases, and other pro-business labor laws,” writes Micah Uetricht of the Nation.

ALEC Exposed, a public watchdog group, reports that the process continues to successfully propose and pass laws that were written during previous meetings, 117 in 2013 that, “fuel a race to the bottom in wages, benefits and worker rights.” One study by the Economic Policy Institute found that in addition to cutting collective bargaining rights, right-to work laws help to lower wages for all workers.

“Right to work laws lower wages for union and nonunion workers by an average of $1,500 a year and decrease the likelihood employees will get health insurance or pensions through their jobs,” EPI found in 2011.

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