While most right-wing think tanks churn out studies and papers providing intellectual justification for conservative policy ideas, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s method of impacting public policy is markedly different. Acting as a sort of consortium, ALEC brings together state legislators, who pay $50 a year to join, and private-sector businesses, which pay dues ranging from $7,000 to $25,000, to discuss public policy and draft model state-level legislation. ALEC’s lawmaker members often introduce those model bills, sometimes word-for-word, in their home states. Although it purports to be “non-partisan,” code words like “limited government” and the fact that 24 out of the 26 state legislators on its board of directors are registered Republicans broadcast ALEC’s conservative perspective.
This centralized public-private legislative laboratory is a big part of the reason that conservative state-level bills often come in spates. The most notorious of these, brought to light in the wake of the death of 15-year-old Trayvon Martin, is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. ALEC, in concert with the National Rifle Association, has successfully pushed versions of Florida’s statute in dozens of other states. Voter ID laws and other electoral restrictions, which in practice do little to combat the much-ballyhooed non-issue of voter fraud but do serve to disenfranchise groups likely to vote Democratic, have similar origins. After groups like Color of Change publicized the ties between ALEC’s corporate members and these measures, a number of high-profile businesses elected to withdraw from ALEC, and shortly thereafter, ALEC issued a statement pledging to focus on economic issues and do away with the Public Safety and Elections task force that generated the controversial bills.
Other initiatives pushed by ALEC with some success align even more directly with a plainly conservative agenda. In addition to legislation that would deprive the government of revenue – “starve the beast” – a notable chunk of ALEC’s legislative priorities seek to edge public functions toward privatization. On everything from prisons to public schools to health care, ALEC consistently turns out model bills that would prune back government’s responsibilities and turn them into new streams of private-sector revenue for its corporate members.
Although as a 501(c)(3) ALEC does not have to disclose its donors, among its sources of cash is the unabashedly right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. It also benefits from Koch money; the Kochs’ business sits on ALEC’s board, and the Koch brothers lent ALEC a half-million dollars when the council was on rocky financial ground in the ‘90s. Foundation contributions like Bradley’s and corporate member dues like Koch’s account for the majority of ALEC’s $7 million budget.