The American Legislative Exchange Council ALEC for short is not well known to the general public and doesn't try to be. But the organization, founded in the early 1970s, boasts of helping to pass hundreds of state laws every year: From tax cuts to loosened environmental regulations to longer prison sentences.
"As you know, ALEC plays a vital if understated role in shaping our national agenda," Tennessee State Representative Steve McDaniel told a luncheon audience of a thousand at ALEC's annual meeting last summer at the Marriott Marquis in New York City's Times Square. "We are the unsung heroes of American public policy."
Turner Construction Company's booth at the annual trade show sponsored by the American Correctional Association. Turner is a construction giant and the nation's number one builder of prisons. Photo: Steve Schapiro
More than a third of the nation's state lawmakers 2400 of them are members of ALEC. Most are Republicans and conservative Democrats. ALEC says its mission is to promote free markets, small government, states' rights, and privatization. Members gather at ALEC meetings to swap ideas and form "model legislation." Legislators then take those "model" bills home and try to make them state law.
In a luncheon speech to the group, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompsonnow the Bush administration's health and human services secretaryfondly remembers his days as a state rep and an early ALEC member in the 1970s.
"Myself, I always loved going to these meetings because I always found new ideas. Then I'd take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that 'It's mine.'"
In forming and spreading its ideas, ALEC gets help from corporate leaders. More than a hundred companies co-sponsor ALEC conferences including Turner, a construction giant and the nation's number one builder of prisons; and Wackenhut Corrections, a private prison corporation.
Another 200 companies and interest groups join ALEC as "private-sector members." They pay dues for the privilege of helping to write ALEC's model bills.
The result is corporate-sponsored legislation, says Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "Bayer Corporation or Bell South or GTE or Merck pharmaceutical company sitting at a table with elected representatives, actually hammering out a piece of legislation behind closed doors, I mean, this isn't open to the public. And that then becomes the basis on which representatives are going to their state legislatures and debating issues."
Next: Tough-on-Crime Measures Increase Prison Population