The annual meeting of an important yet secretive conservative organization we’ve discussed in this space, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), wrapped up in Salt Lake City yesterday. And was subject to lively protest, as the local FOX affiliate reported last week:
ALEC brings state lawmakers from around the country together with corporate sponsors and some conservative interest groups. They cite free market interests as their prime mission and they call themselves bi-partisan.
In recent years, however, ALEC has lost the majority of its Democratic members and in the past year a number of corporate sponsors have fled as well.
Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy came to Utah to protest.
“They [ALEC] vote on model legislation behind closed doors without the press, without people like you or the public present and then those state legislators come out to their state house and introduce those bills cleansed from any fact that they were pre-voted on by corporate lobbyists,” Graves said…
While ALEC hasn’t lost support among Utah Republicans, Utah Democrats have left the group. Rep. Christine Watkins of Price was the last Utah Democrat to leave ALEC and she did so earlier this year.
The American Legislative Exchange Council ran into controversy this year after relationships between ALEC “model legislation” and a Florida law called “Stand Your Ground” surfaced in the wake of the killing of a Florida African-American teenager named Trayvon Martin. An advocacy group called Color of Change launched a campaign to pressure corporate sponsors of ALEC to withdraw, while others contacted legislators affiliated with ALEC. This campaign has been quite successful in many states, with dozens of major corporations like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and General Motors ending their relationship. Some state legislators, mostly Democrats, have been persuaded to publicly distance themselves from ALEC as well.
In Colorado, though, you’ve basically heard nothing about this. Despite the controversy raging in other states, ALEC’s presence here has not received the scrutiny it has received elsewhere.
And there’s a reason: in Colorado, ALEC has its hooks in both parties.
Two of the most controversial pieces of recent education legislation in Colorado, both passed and signed into law with Democratic support, have relationships to the same American Legislative Exchange Council in hot water over “Stand Your Ground” and the killing of Trayvon Martin. The first is Senate Bill 10-191, the “Great Teachers and Leaders Act” creating the new system of teacher effectiveness standards now being implemented. As most of you know, that bill was primarily championed by Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat and former school principal.
On the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed website, the ALEC model version of the “Great Teachers and Leaders Act” may be found here. Now, it does appear that in some cases legislation gets promoted by ALEC as a “model” after it passes in a given state; this would be politically somewhat better for Democrats like Sen. Johnston who pushed SB-191 as opposed to them truly having stenographed an ALEC bill. Was SB-191 made an ALEC model bill after it was passed, or before? We don’t know, but no one who was around in 2010 will forget the intense lobbying effort to pass this bill in 2010 over the objections of many Democrats.
Please note that we’re not making any qualitative judgments about this bill or its proponents. All we’re doing is noting the evident relationship between SB10-191 and the ALEC model “Great Teachers and Leaders Act.” The “model text” of SB10-191 comes from a leak of ALEC model bills to liberal activists from mid-2011, as displayed on the ALEC Exposed website.
Another clue pointing to ALEC’s bipartisan reach in Colorado appeared in this report from FOX 31′s Eli Stokols back in May–writing on the signing into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper of House Bill 12-1238, a celebrated but also controversial bill called the “Colorado READ Act.”
Despite some opposition from a handful of Democrats, most of them former teachers, who were concerned that the bill was an unfunded mandate on districts and overly punitive toward struggling kids, the bill sailed through the House with bipartisan support and sponsors, Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.
With strong support from the business and education reform communities, House Bill 1238 seemed like a slam dunk to cruise straight to the governor’s desk.
But it ran into a stone wall when it moved to the Senate, where Senate President Brandon Shaffer, concerned that the bill was similar to ALEC-crafted retention laws in other states, [Pols emphasis] sent the measure to his “kill committee.”
The bill stalled for weeks as the sponsor, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, made numerous changes to the bill that Shaffer had demanded.
Ultimately, the problems with the bill were negotiated out, and the bill did pass the Senate in the end with unanimous support. At the time of the passage of SB10-191, ALEC wasn’t on the radar of either the bill’s opponents or the national media as it is today. But even if it had been, in Colorado there are Democrats who will basically defend ALEC’s work, and willingly champion ALEC bills–at least where they have convergent interests.
This has the effect of tamping down the controversy that makes things newsworthy.
None of this is meant to understate the fact that ALEC, in Colorado as elsewhere, is an overwhelmingly GOP-dominated organization. The state chairs of ALEC are Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman and Rep. Libby Szabo. A much longer list of ALEC “model legislation” in Colorado can be attributed to Republicans than Democrats, from Amy Stephens’ “Emergency Firearms” bill HB12-1064 (ALEC link here) to HB12-1111, Szabo’s voter ID bill (ALEC link here). Needless to say, Sen. Johnston didn’t support those bills. In fact, he would probably object to education bills he’s sponsored being lumped in with such wacky and/or dangerous right-wing bills. Of course, then he’d have to explain why some of his bills appear to be ALEC bills too.
With ALEC in the national headlines almost daily, sufficiently toxic that dozens of major corporations have fled and Democrats have joined in condemning their influence in state legislatures around the country, we thought you’d like to know more about why they are “not a story” in Colorado–despite influence as deep here as, well, anywhere.
In Colorado, the politics of ALEC get kind of messy.