By Mechelle Hankerson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – On issues ranging from tax credits for private school tuition to a homeowner’s right to kill an intruder, several bills before the 2012 General Assembly resembled model laws proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a politically conservative think tank funded by major corporations.
Liberal watchdog groups say that’s no coincidence: They say ALEC has curried favor with lawmakers in Virginia and other states to pass legislation that benefits corporate interests.
“ALEC is essentially a corporate bill factory,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, an advocacy group for low-income Virginians, women’s rights, environmental protection and other issues.
“ALEC writes model legislation that is designed to increase corporate bottom lines, and then they turn around and hand it off to state legislators to take it home and introduce it.”
ALEC officials dispute that. They describe the group as a “nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who share a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty.”
ALEC officials say they do what their liberal critics do: try to influence public policy. On its website, the organization says it has generated “hundreds of model bills on a wide range of issues, model legislation that will frame the debate today and far into the future.”
On at least one point, ALEC and its detractors agree: The group has been effective in persuading states to adopt its recommendations. “Each year, close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC Model Legislation, are introduced in the states. Of these, an average of 20 percent become law,” ALEC’s website says.
ProgressVA published a report in January saying at least 115 past and present Virginia legislators have membership in or other connections with ALEC. ALEC has ghostwritten more than 50 bills for consideration by the General Assembly in recent sessions, the report said.
“ALEC legislation really blows the gamut on issues,” Scholl said. “What they all have in common is that ALEC prioritizes corporate profits over constituents. For example, one of the areas where ALEC legislation has really been pushed in Virginia is in privatizing education.”
In February, the General Assembly passed a law establishing a tax credit for individuals or organizations that donate money to provide scholarships to send low-income and disabled students to private schools. ALEC has advocated such programs, the ProgressVA report noted.
Delegate James Massie, R-Henrico, sponsored the bill. He is an ALEC member and has attended ALEC conferences, the report said. ALEC paid about $1,600 to cover his conference travel and lodging in 2010-11, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which compiles political contributions data.
ALEC also has been urging states to adopt “Castle Doctrine” laws, which allow people to use deadly force against threatening intruders. The National Rifle Association, which provides funding for ALEC, helped draft the group’s model legislation, ProgressVA said.
This legislative session, both the House and Senate passed versions of a “Castle Doctrine” proposal – House Bill 48. The two chambers could not agree on the final language, and so the issue was carried over until next year.
Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, carried HB 48. Bell’s legislative staff said that he is not a member of ALEC and that his bill was not written with ALEC’s help. But it is the same bill carried in 2011 by Delegate William Cleaveland, R-Roanoke, who retired last fall. Cleaveland’s bill was based on ALEC’s model legislation, the ProgressVA report said.
The report also cited a bill that Bell carried in 2010 to establish “virtual school” programs. The measure opened the door for private and nonprofit organizations to offer online classes for Virginia students in kindergarten through high school.
Since that law took effect, for-profit companies offering online education have “made a killing on school districts for students enrolling in virtual schools programs,” Scholl said.
Both of Bell’s bills are ALEC issues, but neither is an exact copy of ALEC model legislation.
Although ALEC operates nationwide, it has a particularly strong hold on Virginia’s legislators because of the state’s loose rules governing gifts to politicians, Scholl said.
In Virginia, lawmakers can receive unlimited personal gifts as long as they publicly report what they get. The ProgressVA report said that from 2001 through 2010:
• ALEC spent $72,000 on travel and registration so Virginia legislators could attend its conferences and retreats.
• The state spent $231,000 to send legislators to ALEC conferences.
• Lawmakers spent $29,000 from their campaign accounts for ALEC dues, registration and related expenses.
In 2011, ALEC spent nearly $6,700 on convention travel for eight legislators. They included House Speaker William Howell, who over the years has received more than $23,000 in gifts from ALEC, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Such relationships between ALEC and legislators have generated controversy in Richmond and other cities. In February, groups affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement have called for protests against ALEC and corporations that support the group.
In some cities, activists targeted Bank of America, Walmart, McDonald’s and BP. In Richmond, they focused on Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. Altria is one of ALEC’s largest financial contributors, the protesters said.
“ALEC and the tobacco industry have long had a mutually beneficial relationship,” the ProgressVA report said. In 2010, Virginia passed a law to lower the taxes on chewing tobacco. The bill was based on ALEC’s model legislation, according to ProgressVA.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.