CN Aug 1, 2013

Is there a connection between private prisons, charter schools, relaxed fracking laws, tougher abortion regulations and Stand Your Ground?

Yes, and it’s a strong one. It’s called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s a 501(C)3 “educational” organization that’s been called a “dating service” linking America’s largest, wealthiest corporations with state legislators. The whole idea is that, if you have enough money, it’s easier to influence a couple of thousand state Senators and reps in the fifty state capitols than it is to navigate the completely stalemated, dysfunctional federal government. And since the state guys handle taxes, licensing, education, prisons and and all sorts of other sensitive matters, it’s just more effective to deal directly with them.

ALEC has been around for forty years, and during most of that time it’s been nearly 100% invisible in the American media. But it’s been involved in some high-profile issues lately, becoming a lightning rod when it quickly distributed and guided to passage “Stand Your Ground” laws in over 20 states. So it’s finally coming under some scrutiny.

ALEC’s having its 40th Anniversary meeting in Chicago August 7-9, so we thought this would be a perfect time to welcome three highly knowledgeable people into the Newsroom to share ALEC’s history and accomplishments.

“It’s a sort of amalgam of the right-wing social agenda and corporate America’s economic agenda,” explained Joel Bliefuss, editor/publisher of In These Times, which wrote several landmark stories about ALEC. “And I think its ultimate aim these days is to de-fund the public sector and transfer public assets into private hands. They do it very secretly, because they pass legislation around the country through what’s called “model legislation” that’s reproduced in state houses around the country, particularly where Republicans are in control.”

But, says Rey Lopez-Calderon, Executive Director of Common Cause/Illinois, ALEC exploits a significant loophole in tax law. ALEC’s primary contact with legislators is at large, elaborate “conferences” around the country. “If ALEC was to send somebody to talk to a legislator  and buy them a beer, that has to be reported. But they don’t have to report it as lobbying if they send a bunch of legislators to an ALEC conference and you get somebody up there from the NRA or another organization saying – I want you to pass this bill. If you pass this bill, here’s how industry’s gonna  be helpful..we believe that that’s actually tax fraud.”

Bill Moyers has produced a series of documentaries on ALEC, in which he presents video of just such presentations being made from the ALEC podium.

But Lopez-Calderon stresses that ALEC is primarily about corporate influence. “It’s not all Republicans in ALEC…We have some very conservative Democrats that are members, and we have most of the same corporations that also give money to the Democrats. It is about corporatism and less about partisan politics.”

One of the most important methods for asserting this influence, he claims, is getting control of campaign finance law. “Campaign finance laws, little by little, have been eviscerated,” he says. “Even before the Supreme Court started tinkering with the first amendment. We’ve had campaign finance laws in many states that have been killed or adjusted because of model legislation by ALEC. But if you asked the voters, and we’ve done that in several states including solid red states like Montana – if you ask them, do you think the states have a right to regulate campaign finance, they say yes in huge majorities, like 74, 75%.”

A major thrust for ALEC, according to Bliefus, has been the highly successful drive to develop for-profit prisons. “It’s been greased by ALEC from the get-go. And it’s an example first, of promoting the criminalization of large swaths of the American population, and taking a public resource, the prisons, and turning them into profit-making entities – which have an interest in keeping people in jail.”

For-profit prisons and charter schools are two areas where ALEC has had considerable success here in Illinois, according to Bryan Echols, who founded Concerned Black Men of Metropolitan Chicago. “I am looking at ALEC’s partners in education, and one is K-12,” he explains. “K-12 just kicked off here in Chicago with Chicago Virtual Charter School. Interestingly, they’re currently at 600 slots. They will go live around August 28. Their charters have been exended to 2016, and they’re coming in under Renaissance 2010. The unions are against it because it takes away jobs. 52% of the students currently are African-American. And that’s because some of those students have been pushed out of schools by zero-tolerance policies, and those are a residue of ALEC.”

Echols says that ALEC-inspired school and prison policies use a “divide and conquer mentality” with respect to African American and Latino populations, often playing the interests of one against the other. He cites the locations of Illinois’ prisons so far away from Chicago as an example of a way in which the law can tear families apart when an incarcerated relative is hundreds of miles away, equating that with increasingly harsh immigration policy that’s hurting Latino families.  His organization, he says, attempts to “go downstate and work our legislators for the benefit of both communities” by building coalitions. “The Latino Caucus is wondering, why are we voting on prison redistricting, and the Black Caucus is wondering, why are we fighting for drivers’ licenses for immigrants?”

Can these organizing efforts realistically stand up to a force as powerful as ALEC? “There’s money power and there’s people power,” he concludes.

ALEC has been around since 1973, but its spiritual ignition came later, according to Lopez-Calderon. “I really believe we ought to think of Margaret Thatcher being the creator of ALEC,” he says.She’s “the person who got Reagan to think this hybrid, public/corporate idea of capitalism was a good thing. I call it an abomination. It’s not even capitalism. It’s not free market. It’s cronies and particular corporations buying the market and cornering the market for themselves. It’s worse than monopoly. Its – we’re gonna call this private, but everyone’s getting public dollars.”

And by pushing for the early adoption of charter schools in Illinois, ALEC had a profound impact here. “What they’ve been able to do very quietly is they’ve been able to completely change the face of education in Illinois, and nobody knows that they did it.”

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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