Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
In the last two days, I have been completely submerged in the ALEC universe, at times fascinated by the extensive infrastructure the group has assembled while horrified at the policy and practical results for the average person.
The backbone of the American Legislative Exchange Council is an infrastructure that has been developed over the last 40 years that melds together rightwing think tanks, corporations and legislators. This ménage a trois has created a policy-making machine that produces a corporate agenda to elevate private profits over the needs of most people.
Until recently, ALEC members have been quietly working out of the public eye to develop their agenda so that when given the opportunity, they are ready to start creating an ALEC nation. That time has come. And they are ready.
As I sat in workshops, subcommittees and task forces on education, labor and employment, "federalism," tort "reform," energy, and the environment, I realized that ALEC had invaded Wisconsin in a far more comprehensive way than I had believed. Our state has become an ALEC petri dish in preparation for what they hope is an ALEC nation, where free market principles and freedom from government and regulations reign.
It's happening already. In education, private, unaccountable voucher schools have extended to almost 20 states, including a statewide system in Wisconsin.
Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, now a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children, made a presentation in the Education Task Force meeting, where he gleefully reported that two-to-three new states each year adopt the private voucher school system.
His and ALEC's goal is to bring their privatization of public education to every state. They believe the question is no longer if a state will adopt vouchers, but when.
In labor and employment matters, ALEC continues to work diligently to make it harder for employees to receive workers' compensation and unemployment insurance in states including Wisconsin.
I also sat through an extensive presentation in the Labor and Business Regulation subcommittee on a model bill restricting a state's ability to license and regulate occupations.
And in tort "reform," ALEC has already had success in Wisconsin with model bills limiting punitive damage awards, stalling asbestos litigation and shielding corporations from liability for defective products.
ALEC also brags about best practices from states like Wisconsin that have rejected additional Medicaid funds and cut taxes for the most wealthy.
And, of course, ALEC focuses on unlimited money, money, money in politics.
There is no comparable infrastructure on the left. ALEC makes it easy.
Along with model bills comes every piece of information (whether true or not) you could ever need, including handbooks and manuals with pro-active and reactive talking points.
ALEC also gives lawmakers the support of a network of conservative think tanks, which exist in every state, that provide data and research.
ALEC does spin tall tales:
- Carbon dioxide isn't harmful to our environment because it actually helps crops grow.
- The Endangered Species Act threatens every state's economy.
- Professors work three hours a week.
And ALEC uses the same buzzwords, regardless of the issue: "freedom." "liberty," "free market," "reform."
Fortunately, ALEC's hypocrisy is palpable.
It seeks to use accountability and transparency policies to expose what they believe are the deficiencies of government, while denying that these same principles should be applied to corporations making political expenditures or drafting bills for state legislators.
It knows that the public doesn't support corporations influencing legislation in the ALEC model, nor the money that flows from them to politicians, whether through ALEC "scholarships" or corporate campaign contributions.
There is also another crack: The policies that ALEC pushes don't help most people.
They won't help most children get the public education they need to be successful, or support a fair tax structure or pay a family supporting wage.
The ALEC universe is disconnected from most people's lives.
And that is where we can win.
But progressives need to build an infrastructure that will allow us to seize the opportunity, in Wisconsin and in states throughout the nation, to be ready to pass policies that are beneficial to most people's lives.
Wisconsin State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) was elected in 2011. After an unsuccessful attempt by Republicans to gerrymander her out of the legislature, she now represents a significant portion of the Isthmus and downtown Madison, including the Wisconsin State Capitol. An attorney, wife and mother, she previously worked as the public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.