I recently traveled to Missouri to attend my second American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference.
As a state legislator from Wisconsin, I joined ALEC last year. That was the beginning of my journey into a parallel world. In the ALEC otherworld, the three branches of government are: 1. Multinational corporations, including Anheuser-Busch and Koch Industries, 2. Right-wing think tanks networked together through the State Policy Network, and 3. State legislators like me -- although, as a progressive Democrat, I don't fit the mold. Most of my colleagues who belong to ALEC are Republicans and many are Tea Partiers.
The three branches work together to construct and advance model bills in state legislatures throughout the country to further ALEC's agenda of corporate dominance.
The gathering in Missouri was smaller and more intimate than last August's annual conference. But it started the same way. I received no pre-conference materials and had to ask the hotel clerk when and where to check in.
Strict conference rules applied. One attendee registering next to me was denied entrance because she did not have a photo ID. Signs throughout the conference reminded participants that ID badges "were required at all sessions," with sign-in sheets and, in smaller sessions, individual introductions.
Secrecy reigned supreme.
When I asked one of my fellow attendees to take my picture, an ALEC employee forbade it.
But unlike my first experience at an ALEC conference, this time I no longer had anonymity. This conference was dominated by individual workgroups and subcommittees rather than large workshops and receptions. According to a right-wing blogger, an unidentified ALEC staffer had divulged that they were expecting me. For an organization that depends on secrecy to function, including refusing to disclose its members and member fees, revealing attendees was extraordinary.
In this smaller setting, ALEC's internal inconsistencies were more evident.
A part of ALEC's battle is to preserve an old economy, where coal, oil and gas remain supreme. Their defense of these industries represents the will of corporate members Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil and Peabody Energy. Yet their regressive approach to energy policy conflicts with their professed allegiance to Jeffersonian "free market" principles and consumer choice.
Though the renewable energy sector is growing, is popular with the public, and is generating new jobs -- and the solar industry now employs 140,000 more people than our nation's coal mines -- conference attendees focused on hindering this sector, especially solar. Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, who recently received national attention about a racist tweet concerning NBA players, quipped "solar is dumb."
Legislators from Utah and Oklahoma bragged about slowing the development of solar energy in their states. Oklahoma Sen. A.J. Griffin passed a bill to tax individuals using distributed generation from solar panels or wind turbines to "protect our most vulnerable utilities." ALEC wants to tax people who use small-scale solar or wind or who drive electric cars. According to ALEC, property owners should have a right to kill a person on their property, but not use solar or wind energies on their property without paying a tax.
ALEC's guiding principle -- supporting big business -- turns the small-c conservative ideal of individual liberty and local control on its head. As Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson stated to an education subcommittee, "We need to stomp out local control." School boards and city councils take away liberties quicker than the federal government, he insisted. Local governing entities can be a roadblock to the ALEC agenda, so their power needs to be pre-empted and removed.
And as ALEC convenes a new working group on public school financing, the model bill that is in the works is a funding formula based on school performance with criteria set by state legislators. One ALEC legislator stated that school boards should be taken out of the equation altogether, as they merely use children as "human shields."
Finally, there are the economics of the ALEC otherworld. I chuckled at the scorn directed at Minnesota, where, Rep. Garafalo remarked, "the inmates are running the asylum." Minnesota raised taxes on the rich and invested the resulting revenue in public schools, including all-day kindergarten. In "Rich States, Poor States," an ALEC publication that ranks states in terms of a 2013 State Economic Outlook, Minnesota ranks 46th, Wisconsin 15th and Mississippi 10th. Yet in 2012 Minnesota had one of the fastest-growing economies in the nation, and currently has higher median incomes and lower unemployment and poverty rates than both Wisconsin and Mississippi (where a whopping 17.5 percent of families have incomes below the poverty level). The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts Minnesota near the top of private-sector job growth in the Midwest, while Wisconsin lags near the bottom. In the ALEC otherworld, actual economics do not count.
It's all about a business-friendly environment. Hello, Third World.
Unfortunately, under Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature, ALEC model bills of today become the Wisconsin laws of tomorrow. At the last conference I attended, ALEC kicked off an initiative to amend the federal Constitution to shut down the federal government. Several months later, AB 750, a resolution that came from that workshop and calls for a federal balanced budget amendment, passed the Wisconsin state Assembly. There have been many other ALEC bills that have become Wisconsin law, including one that makes it more difficult for sick and injured patients to access the courts, several that reduce citizens' access to the ballot box, including voter ID, and a spate of efforts to privatize public education. Other ALEC model bills have passed the state Assembly, such as pre-empting local living wage ordinances, but did not get through the Senate. Not yet.
These policies hurt actual people. And it is, after all, the people who elect state representatives, not multinational corporations pushing their profit agenda.
By the end of the conference, one Texas attendee asked me "Are you that Wisconsin blogger?" He was the only person at the conference to acknowledge that I was not of the ALEC ilk. When I saw him again at the airport, he waved, "See you next time."
Indeed he will.