The Legislation Mill That Spread 'Stand Your Ground' Comes Under Scrutiny

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The American Legislative Exchange Council is a low-profile interest group with high-profile corporate members that aims to write and pass business-friendly laws, but it's tough to argue what one of its successes, Florida's Stand Your Ground self-defense law, has to do with business, and that's why the group was dropped by Coca-Cola Monday. The decision came after Color of Change pushed Coca-Cola to drop ALEC over the Florida law blamed for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, NPR's Peter Overby reports. "We have a longstanding policy of not taking positions on issues that don't have a direct bearing on our company or on our industry," Coca-Cola said in a statement. However, it took a long time for that longstanding policy to be implemented by Coca-Cola, because ALEC has been pushing laws that don't have much to do with selling soda for some time.

What is ALEC?

ALEC was once more known for crafting for pro-business legislation, like laws that curb union power, but in recent years its social issues legislation has caught notice, Overby reports. ALEC is behind voter ID laws that civil rights groups say suppress voter turnout. It turned Florida's self-defense law into model legislation that is now law in 23 states. It turned Arizona's controversial immigration law into model legislation for other states to adopt. In 2010, the groups's policy director Michael Bowman told NPR that ALEC's small staff doesn't actually write legislation -- "Most of the bills are written by outside sources and companies, attorneys, [and legislative] counsels." So if ALEC's focus has shifted, that would presumably due to a shift in the interests of its corporate members and their attorneys, and not among the staff of ALEC itself.

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Virginia lawmakers have introduced 50 ALEC-written bills; since 2001, the state has sent lawmakers to the group's conferences on the taxpayer's tab to the tune of $230,000. In 2009, more than 200 of its model bills became law, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported. Lawmakers in Florida and Tennessee have introduced bills where large sections are copied verbatim from ALEC model bills.

Where does it get its money?

Both legislators and corporations pay dues to belong to ALEC, but corporate members' dues make up 99 percent of the group's $7 million budget, NPR reports. It gets some of its funding from organizations tied to Koch Industries, the company of Charles and David Koch, who fund many conservative causes, including some Tea Party groups, and are liberals' favorite villains. But most of its corporate members are companies that sell products to the average consumer and are not associated with conservative causes.

How does it work?

ALEC not technically a lobbying group because it only "exchanges" legislation. But some of the things it does sounds like lobbying -- business leaders and lawmakers sit in a room and write legislation, and then the lawmaker takes it home to his state capital, Sullivan explains. As a non-profit, ALEC can put on fancy conferences where corporations can sponsor golf tournaments and parties. Lawmakers don't have to disclose the corporate sponsorships of events attached to the conference. Lawmakers can receive scholarships to attend these conferences.

Who's in it?

Major corporate members: Kraft, ExxonMobile, AT&T, UPS, Koch Industries, Pfizer, PhRMA, GlaxoSmithKline, Wal-Mart
Former corporate members: Pepsi, which ended its relationship in January after 10 years; Coca-Cola, which said goodbye Monday; Corrections Corporation of America, which was a member as late as October 2010 and which was present when model legislation was drafted based on Arizona's controversial illegal immigrant law.
Lawmaker alums: The liberal Center for Media and Democracy lists many prominent lawmakers as ALEC alums, including House Speaker John Boehner, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Sen. Jim Inhofe, and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Texas Gov. Rick Perry proudly touted an ALEC award in 2010.

On March 25, The New York Times' Paul Krugman wrote, "And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy." (It seems that has come to pass.) Krugman described the far-reaching consequences of ALEC's activism. Two days after Krugman's column was published, ALEC responded, but only to say it was no longer involved in the for-profit prison industry, because it thinks different reforms work better. "We are not afraid to do so when the facts demand it," the group wrote in a statement on its site. It did not dispute its characterization as a stealthily powerful right-wing not-quite lobby group with tentacles in statehouses across the country.

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