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Who's Really Writing States' Legislation?

A group called ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — "is at the forefront of an effort to push business-friendly, conservative legislation at the state level," says reporter John Nichols. He discusses what recently leaked documents reveal about the organization.

36:30

Other segments from the episode on July 21, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 21, 2011: Interview with John Nichols; Interview with Noble Ellington.

Transcript

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How ALEC Shapes State Politics Behind The Scenes

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A leak of documents has given
journalists the opportunity to scrutinize an organization that has
intentionally kept a low profile. That organization, ALEC, the American
Legislative Exchange Council, brings state lawmakers together with
representatives of major corporations to draft model legislation.

Those model bills, or variations on them, are often introduced into
state legislatures and go on to become laws.

Although ALEC enables corporations to influence legislation, it's not
defined as a lobby group and has nonprofit status. That nonprofit status
is now being challenged by the group Common Cause.

More than 800 of ALEC's model bills were leaked to the Center for Media
and Democracy. They set up a website called ALEC Exposed. My guest, John
Nichols, has been reading the ALEC documents and writing about them for
The Nation magazine, where he's a political writer.

John Nichols, welcome to FRESH AIR. From what you've learned, is it fair
to say that the main goal of ALEC is to draft model legislation?

Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (The Nation): Well, I think it's a much more ambitious
goal than that. They certainly do draft model legislation, as well as
resolutions, which outline sort of an ideology, an approach to state
government.

But all of those pieces of legislation and those resolutions really err
toward a goal, and that goal is the advancement of an agenda that seems
to be dictated at almost every turn by multinational corporations.

GROSS: What would you say that agenda is?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, I think it's to make it easier for corporations to do
what they want to do, and not all those things are evil, although
sometimes folks talk about corporations that way. But it's just to clear
the way - lower taxes, less regulation, particularly less environmental
regulation, a lot of protections against lawsuits. ALEC is very, very
active in what's referred to as tort reform. And also an opening up of
areas via privatization for corporations to make more money,
particularly in places you might not usually expect, like public
education.

AlEC is a very, very strong advocate for voucher programs and
privatization programs in the area of education.

GROSS: And privatization of prisons as well?

Mr. NICHOLS: Oh, very ambitiously for privatization of prisons. And
there's a group called the Corrections Corporation of America that's
very, very active with ALEC, and they build prisons.

GROSS: So the focus of ALEC is legislation on the state level, not the
national level. Most of us, I think, are more focused on national
legislation. Why is ALEC focused on the state level?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, because they're smart. The fact of the matter is that
we live at the local and state level. That's where human beings come
into contact with government more often than not.

You know, we live today, in America, in a country where there's a
Washington obsession, particularly by the media, but also by a lot of
the political class. It's all about what happens in Washington.

And yet, in most areas it's not Washington that dictates the outlines,
the parameters of our life. It's state and local government that has the
biggest hand in public education, in infrastructure, in transportation,
in, you know, everything down to running police and fire departments and
regulating them.

And so if you come at the state government level, you have a much
greater ability to define how you're going to operate. And remember, the
United States was set up by the founders, I think rather ingeniously, as
a network of 50 states. And these states have very different laws, very
different approaches.

If you can create a national overlay on all 50 of those states that is
very favorable toward your ideology or toward your business, it's going
to be very advantageous to you. So there's a great wisdom in going at
the states.

GROSS: If you look at the states, what's the balance in America between
Republican and Democratic legislators?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, it's very much toward the Republicans right now, and
the Republicans have had, particularly in the last election cycle, just
an incredibly successful run. They picked up roughly 680 seats in state
houses and state senate chambers in the 2010 election. That was the
biggest pickup that they had had since 1966, which was a great year for
them.

They now hold more state legislative seats than at any time since 1928,
the year that Herbert Hoover came to the presidency. They control 25
states, both houses of the legislature. There are also 21 states where
Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governorship.

That's referred as trifecta control, and in the kind of backrooms of
politics, that's what people really want. If you've got governor, state
house and state senate, you can pretty much roll through whatever
legislation you want.

GROSS: So when ALEC, which is again an acronym for the American
Legislative Exchange Council, when ALEC helps draft model legislation,
how does it - what is the process that it uses?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, it's a very interesting process. ALEC is a membership
group, and it's not a lobby, it doesn't operate as a lobby. It operates
as a membership group. Legislators become members, and corporations
become members.

Legislators pay about 50 bucks. It's sometimes even paid by their state
government as membership dues under the, you know, standard operating
procedures there. And so they're all in it. There's about 2,000
legislators who are members of ALEC from around the country.

Corporations pay a much higher amount, 7,000 up to 25,000 dollars to be
members. But once you're in, they sit at the same table. And so on the
board of ALEC, the oversight board, you have an equal number of
legislators and corporate representatives or representatives of
sometimes corporate foundations, conservative foundations, that have
paid this large amount to be there.

And then you pay fees as well to be on a task force directly with the
legislatures - legislators shaping model legislation. These task forces
deal with issues such as health care, education, election law, and you
have an equal number of legislators on each task force and corporate
and/or interested think tanks, foundations, groupings. They have to
agree on any model bill or any model resolution.

What that means is that while it's referred to as the American
Legislative Exchange Council, it actually has a situation where
corporations, particularly in areas where they have a high level of
interest, such as tort law or health care, are able to veto a proposal
or veto an idea that isn't to their liking.

So it's really much more than the American Legislative Exchange Council.
It's really the American Legislative and Corporation Exchange Council.
In fact, about two percent of ALEC's funding comes from dues paid by
legislators. The rest comes from corporate sources and other sources,
foundations and that.

GROSS: So in what sense do corporations have a veto?

Mr. NICHOLS: They've got - there's an equal number of members. And so if
all the corporate members of a task force say we don't want to go with
that bill, we don't - that would regulate us too much, the legislators
cannot make it a model bill.

And there's a significant part here too. I don't want to paint the
picture that the corporations are coming in and forcing these
legislators to do things. Most of the legislators are very conservative.
They're very sympathetic to a lot of what the corporations or
conservative foundations, conservative think-tanks are advocating.

But what's significant here is that when you sit at that table - if you
understand how legislatures operate around the country, they are made up
often of folks who come out of their communities.

I mean, we really do have, you know, it's kind of an old-school
representative democracy. And so they don't have a lot of experience
quite frequently in technical areas of telecommunications or health care
delivery or education. And so they come to these tables in Washington or
in some very fancy hotel on some island, and the corporate
representatives say, well, here's a good idea.

And more often than not, it appears when you look through all the
documents, that the legislators say: that's cool, let's make that our
model legislation. And then that legislation or some variation on it
then goes back into the states, carried by the legislators.

GROSS: From what I understand, ALEC likes to bring into its membership
new state legislators. And I think it must be very hard for new
legislators to kind of get a lay of the land and of all the complicated
bills that they have to comprehend.

But also I think in some states, being a state legislator is a part-time
job. Is that right?

Mr. NICHOLS: It's a very part-time job in some states. You know, and
sometimes it only pays 100 bucks a year.

GROSS: So is it in that sense perhaps very helpful to new legislators to
have a group like ALEC, you know, whether people would see it as a good
thing or a bad thing in the long run, for a new legislator who is kind
of like-minded with the agenda of ALEC, is it very helpful to have, you
know, an infrastructure like that?

Mr. NICHOLS: I would say it's too helpful, and that's the distinction I
would make. It can be helpful to exchange ideas. I think that's a
terrific thing, and to exchange ideas across state lines is certainly
commendable.

But to have new legislators come in and defer to a national grouping
that gives them, you know, a set of suggestions on how to think about
every issue is to my mind not the way to go.

Historically, our states have been very, very different places. There is
a difference between Maine and Mississippi. There is a difference
between North Dakota and New York. And I think when legislators come in
in their first term, and if they're working with other legislators from
the state, maybe a few people from other states, but basically rooted in
their place, they maintain, I think, a continuity that can be very
healthy and really keep some of the diversity of ideas, the diversity of
approaches that I think makes America great.

When you are instantaneously flying off to Washington or to New Orleans,
where they're going to meet in August, to sit down with a bunch of very
powerful national folks who have been involved in these issues for a
long time, I think it actually deadens out creative thinking instead of,
you know, coming in and saying, wow, I really want to change this place.

Instead, you get a, you know, a playbook that tells you what folks have
been working on for a long time. So to my mind, it's not a particularly
healthy thing for a new legislator. But of course the folks from ALEC -
and I will be blunt with you, the folks from some organizations on the
left - would say oh no, no, no, we want to have that influence. We want
to, you know, really create a continuity across the U.S.

I like our diversity. I prefer our states to be different. I prefer them
to have different approaches because I agree with Louis Brandeis. He
used to refer to the states as laboratories of democracy, and I think
that's a great notion, that states will be doing very different things,
and then the best ideas would rise not because they are promoted by a
particular group but on their merits, on their value.

That historically has been the great contribution of the states, and I
don't think that one-size-fits-all solutions really go well with the
laboratory of democracy.

GROSS: My guest is John Nichols, a political writer for The Nation
magazine. We'll talk more about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange
Council, and what the leaked ALEC documents reveal after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the group ALEC, the American Legislative
Exchange Council. The group brings together corporations and state
lawmakers who collaborate on writing model bills that can be introduced
to state legislatures.

More than 800 of those model bills were recently leaked to the Center
for Media and Democracy. My guest, John Nichols, is a political writer
for The Nation and has been reading and analyzing the leaked documents.

Can you list some of the legislation passed this year that you think
really comes out of ALEC, out of the model legislation?

Mr. NICHOLS: I think there's a group of areas where ALEC has been very,
very active this year, and that you've seen it across the country in a
flood of legislation on tort reform, making it harder to sue
corporations and powerful institutions; on limiting the taxing ability
of states, particularly a whole host of corporate tax breaks, changes in
what is expected of corporations.

There's been a huge amount of legislation that has come down in states
across the country on privatization of schools and of other government
services, particularly requiring local governments to contract out
rather than to use their own employees.

There's a host of legislation in areas like prevailing wage and labor
law, what's called paycheck protection, i.e., taking away the dues
check-off for unions. So a lot of legislation that we've seen in states
across the country that's been very, very controversial, the great
demonstrations you've seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, to a
lesser extent Maine, around legislation of this kind.

And then there's also been a lot of movement on the area of voter ID, 33
states looking at voter ID legislation that requires a lot more jumping
through hoops before you can cast a ballot. And ALEC has been in the
forefront of writing model legislation on voter ID bills.

GROSS: So if you were took at legislation that was introduced in several
states and compare the wording of the bills on, say, tort reform, which
is an issue that's big on the ALEC list of priorities, would the wording
be the same? Would the wording be very similar to that model legislation
that came out of ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: Absolutely. You're going to find immense amounts of
similarity. In fact, one of the wonderful things about doing this story
is that as it - after it appeared, a lot of journalists around the
country read it, and they went into the Center for Media and Democracy's
ALEC Exposed website, looked at model legislation and then in their home
states started looking at bills that have been passed.

And just the other day, in Tennessee, a paper found a bill where
basically the second half of it was verbatim from the ALEC model bill.
Now, that's not always the case. The legislation will have variations on
a theme. It won't always be verbatim. But the core concepts are there.

And so you will see in a voter ID bill, for instance, specific
references to what type of ID is acceptable, what type is not. In
legislation and initiatives as regards public financing of campaigns,
which ALEC is very, very opposed to, you'll find, again, the same set of
references.

GROSS: Are there bills in your state, Wisconsin, that seem to be
variations on model legislation that came out of ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: Definitely. I think there's no question of that. And I've
watched the Wisconsin legislature for many years. Wisconsin's been a
favorite state of ALEC for a long time, and there are a lot of Wisconsin
legislators who have gone through ALEC.

In fact, our governor, Scott Walker, is an ALEC alumni. So too are 10
other current Republican governors, that's - they were in ALEC when they
were legislators.

In addition, the majority leader of the state Senate is a former ALEC
chair. The chairman of the Joint Finance Committee is the current ALEC
chair. So there's a lot of physical presence there.

But to give you an example, just this week, the governor signed a - kind
of a remarkable bill. It reverses early release. It says that all of the
structures...

GROSS: Of prisoners.

Mr. NICHOLS: Right, to - all the structures that have been put in place
to make it easy for a prisoner who's had good behavior, served a good
deal of time, to get out. And that's generally a pretty popular idea,
especially in a time of tight budgets. You don't want to pack the
prisons. You want to get them out if they're not a threat.

We reversed all of our early release laws, really shot them down, and
the interesting thing is that the person who sponsored that bill, state
assembly majority leader Scott Souter(ph), is a long-time member of
ALEC, and he is currently on the ALEC task force that deals with public
safety and prison issues.

And so if you look at that task force, and there are proposals on, you
know, changing laws, they're just very, very similar to what popped up
here in Wisconsin.

GROSS: So one way of reading that would be that members of ALEC who
represent private prisons have a vested interest in keeping prisoners in
prison longer, it's more money. Is that...

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, or in having a prison crowding situation that might
demand the building of more prisons.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. NICHOLS: Now, let's be clear here, that there are honest players who
believe that everybody who gets convicted of a crime ought to serve
every second that they are sentenced to, and I recognize that. But the
interesting thing is at a time when many thoughtful national
conservatives are stepping up and saying we've got a problem here; there
are very conservative players who working with the NAACP saying, look,
we need to get people out of the prisons. We've got too many people in
them, it's not working, it's not a good approach. To have states
suddenly say no, no, no, that's not where we're going, we're going a
different direction altogether, we're going to get rid of early release
and create a situation where our prisons are going to get more crowded,
that seems to me to be one of those places where as a reporter, my kind
of red flag goes up.

I say that doesn't make sense. It strikes me that there's got to be
somebody here who wants something from this. There's got to be some
benefit that comes to somebody by going against what seems to be the
logic of the moment, which is we can't have such crowded prisons when
our budgets are so strained.

And I think that that, as you suggest, is one very viable answer to the
question, that there are interested parties that frankly just want more
prisons.

GROSS: Is there a liberal counterpart to ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: No, there's no real liberal counterpart to ALEC. There is
the Progressives States Network, that tries to do some of this work.
There's some great small groupings in areas like the environment, where
they bring together legislators from different areas. But there's
nothing equivalent either in size or scope on the left to what ALEC does
on the right.

GROSS: Now, you say ALEC is known for its refusal to compromise. What do
you mean?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, I mean this is part and parcel of what we're seeing
across the political life right now. Back in the 1970s, early 1970s, a
number of new organizations, think-tanks, membership groups, political
operations, were started by true-believer conservatives, really
passionate conservatives, as well as some libertarian folks and a lot of
corporate folks who were very frustrated by the Nixon presidency.

Richard Nixon, elected as a Republican, quite hated by a lot of
Democrats, went out and created the Environmental Protection Agency,
Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, expanded public housing, was relatively
sympathetic to a lot of unions. And they were thinking, you know, this
just doesn't work.

This is - here we elect Republicans and we still end up getting, you
know, policies that don't favor what we want. And so ALEC, like a lot of
these other groups, has worked for a very long time to get political
players trained up, raised up, get ideas into the mix that are very
pure, that are not about compromise but that are about, you know,
winning the game, winning the whole thing.

And I think that's one of the reasons why ALEC is not just interested in
corporate regulation, tax policy, but also very, very interested in
election law and election policies.

I mean, this is a group that has, I think it's safe to say, a broad
vision for how they want the states to operate, and frankly how they
would hope that their members and their allies would continue to be the
dominant players at the state level for generations to come.

GROSS: John Nichols will talk more about ALEC, the American Legislative
Exchange Council, in the second half of the show. He's a political
writer for The Nation magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about what recently leaked documents reveal about the
group ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. The group brings
together state lawmakers with representatives of major corporations to
collaborate on writing model bills that can be introduced into state
legislatures. The documents were leaked to the Center for Media and
Democracy. My guest John Nichols has been studying and writing about
these documents for The Nation magazine where he's a political writer.

Can you give us a sense of what was in that leak?

Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, like the size, the number of documents, the span of
what they represented?

Mr. NICHOLS: Okay. I will just say that my eyes are still blurry.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NICHOLS: You know, what happened was - it was a really interesting,
it's a good story and it's a good classic old-school journalism story.
ALEC really came into the news this year because legislators around the
country were starting to notice that a lot of ALEC priority seemed to be
rising to the top very quickly, and some Democratic legislators were
complaining about it, some unions who were particularly objecting it.

And so when ALEC had its spring conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, there
were a group of union folks, activist folks who protested outside of it.
And amusingly enough, one of the leaders of those protests got a call or
got a contact from somebody who said look, I'm a ALEC member, but I'm
real frustrated, I'm real unsettled by a lot that's going on and I want
to give you all this information. And this woman said well, you know,
okay. That's cool.

Well, what it turned out to be was all the information, a massive amount
of documents: model resolutions, model bills, all of the details of who
leads taskforces, who serves on taskforces, all of the details of their
state chairs and, you know, who the alumni are and it's a massive amount
of information. Lots of names. And, you know, journalists always like
names. But also, lots of details where you really do get an ideological
vision.

I focus - my interest is in elections. I'm always fascinated by, you
know, how our elections play out, how our politics plays out, how
democracy itself functions. And so I looked through all the documents,
at least everything that was in this document dump on elections and on
democracy and on everything from the Electoral College to how we do
local initiatives. And frankly, it's amazing. There is just such
meticulous work. They are very detail-oriented, very, very focused on a
whole host of issues and they have an opinion about everything. And, you
know, what they - how they want elections to work.

Money should speak. No question of that. They think it's a big deal.
They love the Electoral College. They think it's a very, very dangerous
notion to have direct election of presidents. They even say at one point
that if you had direct election of the presidents you might create a
situation in which someone with a plurality was elected. So what they're
saying is you might create a situation where the person with the most
votes got elected.

But what's so interesting about the ALEC exposed archive is that in many
ways it is a broad outline of all the policy debates at the state level.
And because so many people from ALEC have gone to the federal level,
folks like Speaker John Boehner and Eric Cantor and a lot of other key
congressional players, many of the presidential candidates, folks like
Michele Bachmann, because of that overlay, you really see it not just as
an outline for what's happening in the states, but in many ways an
outline for a lot of the contemporary debates about how we do fiscal
policy, how we envision government. How we envision democracy itself.

GROSS: ALEC is obviously trying to influence legislation by creating
model bills. It does not consider itself a lobby group and it has
nonprofit status. Right now Common Cause is trying to challenge that
nonprofit status and they're saying that ALEC has no right to evade
disclosure laws and to receive tax breaks. Can you describe this
controversy over whether or not ALEC should be defined as a nonprofit or
as a lobbying group?

Mr. NICHOLS: We use the word lobbying in the broad sense. It's the way
that people casually talk about it. When you lobby you pressure, you
push, you try to pass something. But lobbying is actually pretty
carefully defined in both federal and state policy and it involves, you
know, a certain set of actions taken by individuals to try and
specifically influence passage of legislation.

And ALEC has worked around that by being a membership organization which
argues that none of these corporate folks aren't lobbyists. They aren't
going up to a state capitol and buttonholing legislators and saying pass
something.

What they do is they sit down at the table as fellow members of an
organization - perhaps, like members of a church or members of a country
club - and talk about stuff. And they've kind of pushed for this very
vague definition of that relationship.

And the argument that Common Cause has made is that this is lobbying in
everything but name and maybe even in name, in reality. And so they have
asked the IRS to take a serious look at ALEC's charitable definition, to
say can you really define this as a not-for-profit group to which
corporations can make contributions and deduct them. And, you know, can
operate in this sphere or shouldn't it operate in a much more public and
much more transparent sphere.

And I think that's a very significant ask, because in the United States
if we have an organization that is having a profound influence on how
our state governments operate, shouldn't we know who's involved, who is
putting what money in, how they're operating? Shouldn't you just have a
relatively high level of transparency? That is not an ideological
assault. That certainly allows ALEC to continue to operate on the lines
that it wants to operate, to advocate for what it wants to advocate for,
to be very, very strong, very passionate in its ideals and its purposes,
but simply to let the voters and other legislators know where these
ideas are coming from and perhaps and then to form their own
conclusions.

GROSS: One of the things that lobby groups do is give money to political
campaigns. And then there's always the question of like are you buying
the politician by helping fund their campaign. ALEC does not do that.
They do not give direct money to campaigns or to politicians.

Mr. NICHOLS: They absolutely do not. And I think they're very, very
careful to avoid that. And I want to, you know, I'm pretty critical of
ALEC in a lot of fronts but I want to be very defending of this in this
regard. I don't see a model where ALEC in any way has set itself up as a
conduit or as a source of money for candidates. But what it does do is
put sitting legislators, particularly legislative leaders, in the same
room with representatives of corporations that have a profound interest
in whether certain legislation is passed, whether it is not passed.

This becomes significant, I think especially in what we now refer to as
the Citizens United era - the era in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme
Court decision saying that corporations can spend out of their
treasuries quite freely on campaigns. Now you have a situation within
ALEC where legislators meeting up with these corporate folks, sharing
interests, sharing values, and potentially becoming very, very useful to
those corporations as advocate for tort law reform, for a host of other
regulatory reforms, environmental changes, things of that nature, might,
you know, know who to call once they've left the meeting room and
completely outside of the orbit of ALEC if they wanted a campaign
contribution.

And I think, you know, if we're honest with ourselves, this is how an
awfully lot of politics works. Politicians like to be put in the same
space with folks who have the ability to give money. The truth of the
matter is Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, like to
be around people who can write campaign contribution checks or, in the
Citizens United era, who can do independent expenditures on behalf of
those politicians or those candidates.

GROSS: Now the Koch brothers are among the major funders of ALEC. And
one of the Koch brothers has also been a major contributor to the Tea
Party. Is there a connection between the Tea Party and ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: I think that that's one of those places where you're going
to certainly see a lot of the same funding, a lot of the same people and
a lot of the same ideals, a lot of the same values. ALEC really is about
getting rid of a lot of big government and moving toward a very
different vision of how we organize the public sphere, and that's
something a lot of Tea Party folks are sympathetic to.

But I would be cautious about saying that there is a pure Tea Party-ALEC
connection and I'll tell you why. I doubt that 99 percent of sincere Tea
Party activists have ever heard of ALEC until perhaps this week. And
also I think this gets to really one of the more complicated and
interesting aspects of the Tea Party. It's not one movement. It's not
one simplistic movement.

In talking to Tea Party activists, going to their rallies, being with
them, one of the things that has powerfully struck me is that they are
very, very troubled by the government. But many of them are also very
troubled by big influence, big power of any kind including corporate
power. And so I would suggest to you that there are undoubtedly quite a
few Tea Party folks who would be very ill at ease with the notion that
large corporations are defining the conservative agenda, and again,
perhaps defining it in a way that doesn't really fit with the most pure
Tea Party ideals.

To give you a classic example, a lot of Tea Party folks are very
uncomfortable with free trade. They don't like the idea of opening up
the borders and having, you know, very open trade with other countries.
And yet ALEC is passionately, passionately in favor of free trade. So I
think there are divisions.

GROSS: Your most recent book, "The Death and Life of American
Journalism," has just been published in paperback. And you were telling
me before the interview that you see a direct connection between some of
the issues you raise in that book and ALEC, what you've been writing
about now. What's the connection?

Mr. NICHOLS: I think there's a huge connection. When I was a kid coming
up in journalism a long time ago, if you walked into a statehouse
newsroom it was packed. Every, even medium-size paper in the state sent
reporters up. Radio stations did, TV stations, and state government was
really closely covered. Today, the National Conference of State
Legislators and other groups will tell you that one of the biggest
crises at the state level is that the state government is operating in
the dark.

So many newspapers, and so many radio stations especially, have laid off
their statehouse reporters that you have states around the country which
often have very few if any reporters covering major activities of the
state. I think that's opened up the way for a lot of interest groups to
step in and become the sources of information not just for the people
but for legislators themselves. And I do believe that as we see a depth
of statehouse journalism or at least a decaying of statehouse journalism
we see a real rise in the ability of interest groups of all kinds,
especially a group that's so well organized as ALEC, to influence the
process.

GROSS: Well, John Nichols, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. NICHOLS: Thank you.

GROSS: John Nichols is a political writer for The Nation magazine.

Coming up, we'll hear from the national chairman of ALEC, Noble
Ellington.

You'll find links to The Nation's coverage of ALEC, the Center for Media
and Democracy's website, ALEC exposed, and the ALEC website on our
website, freshair.npr.org.

This is FRESH AIR.
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National Chairman Of ALEC Responds To Report

TERRY GROSS, host:

We've been talking about what recently leaked documents reveal about
ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings together
state lawmakers with representatives of large corporations to
collaborate on writing model bills that can be introduced into state
legislatures.

Joining is now is the national chairman of ALEC, Noble Ellington. He's a
Republican member of the Louisiana State Legislature.

Earlier we heard from journalist John Nichols who described ALEC's
agenda as advocating business-friendly legislation, including lower
taxes, protections against lawsuits, limiting environmental regulations
and privatizing prisons and schools.

Noble Ellington, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to describe in
your words the goals of ALEC.

Mr. NOBLE ELLINGTON (National Chairman, ALEC): I think what we look at
is limited government, Jeffersonian principles, free trade, those kinds
of things. And it's to work with businesses to promote business growth
and private sector growth so that we can help stimulate the economy.

GROSS: Can you give some examples of legislation that was introduced and
passed recently in state legislatures that is based on model legislation
drafted by ALEC members, corporations and legislators in cooperation
together?

Mr. ELLINGTON: Well, they may start out in corporation together. The
corporations and the ALEC members, they may start out together, but
only, only legislative members approve model legislation, not the
private sector advisory board. They don't approve the legislation; just
the public sector members do that. And yes - and I'll give you
Louisiana, this year, working with the Pew Foundation, we introduced
some legislation working on prison reform, trying to stop recidivism and
make the time that the prisoners have to serve, attempt to shorten that,
for two reasons. One, for them, being the inmates; and the other being
for the cost to the state.

GROSS: Why give corporations such a big say in drafting legislation?

Mr. ELLINGTON: Well, partly because they're one of the ones who will be
affected by it. And you say a big say, but as I expressed to you
earlier, and I think it needs to be made perfectly clear, that they
have, they do not have the final say about model legislation. It is done
with work with taskforces, which is both public and private sector
working together. But before it ever becomes model legislation or ALEC
policy, it has to go through the public sector board, not the private
sector. So only the public sector had the final say as to whether or not
something becomes model legislation.

GROSS: But the corporations on who are represented have a lot of input
in writing the legislation, in drafting it.

Mr. ELLINGTON: Yes, they do. They have, they certainly have interest,
because it's going to affect them, so do the tax – so does the taxpaying
public.

GROSS: But the taxpaying public isn't at the table.

Mr. ELLINGTON: Wait just a minute. Don't – don't assume that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ELLINGTON: I work for the taxpaying public. So don't assume that
they're not, because they are. And we represent the public and we are
the ones who decide. So the taxpaying public is represented there at the
table because I'm there.

GROSS: I understand that, but you're there at the table with
corporations. But at the table...

Mr. ELLINGTON: Can I interrupt you again?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. ELLINGTON: It's not just corporations. I'm there, and members of
ALEC is the Americans for Tax Reform, the National Taxpayers Union,
National Federation of Independent Businesses - those are people that we
represent as well and those are people who are members.

GROSS: But those are all pro-business, anti-tax groups. People not
represented at the table include workers, union members, teachers,
students...

Mr. ELLINGTON: No, ma'am. No, ma'am.

GROSS: Patients who are can't medical bills...

Mr. ELLINGTON: You are completely wrong.

GROSS: Uh-huh. I'm sorry?

Mr. ELLINGTON: I represent...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ELLINGTON: I, me, as an elected official, I represent unions. I
represent teachers. And you're saying you want taxes raised? Is that
what you're saying?

GROSS: I don't think I said I want taxes raised. I don't think I said
anything about what I wanted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLINGTON: You said these are anti-tax, you know, these groups are
anti-tax.

GROSS: I was just pointing out that Americans for Tax Reform is very,
very opposed to taxes period. Just making, you know, just observing -
yeah.

Mr. ELLINGTON: My constituents are opposed to taxes, period.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. ELLINGTON: Mine are.

GROSS: I guess what I'm saying - yeah.

Mr. ELLINGTON: And I represent those people, so I, you know, I'm a
little bit taken offense when you say these people are represented. They
elected me. They elected me six times...

GROSS: But...

Mr. ELLINGTON: ...just to represent them, and that's what I do.

GROSS: Now, you're saying that only the legislators vote on whether a
model bill will be accepted. But John Nichols, the journalist who we
were just talking to, who has read a lot of the documents that were
leaked about ALEC, he said that corporations do have the power to
basically veto, you know, model legislation.

Mr. ELLINGTON: They may can in the - when the bills are being discussed
in the taskforce. But when it comes before the board, if it's going to
pass, it has to pass by the public sector.

GROSS: But it's not going to get out of the taskforce unless the
corporations sitting on that committee approve.

Mr. ELLINGTON: You're probably asking me something a little more
technical than I am prepared to answer, but I would think that's right.
But I do think that the public sector can get it out if they
(unintelligible).

GROSS: Many documents from the ALEC archive, many ALEC papers that had
previously not been made public have now been made public because they
were leaked by someone and given to the Center for Media and Democracy,
which has passed them on to journalists who have been trying to read
them and analyze them. What impact is that having on ALEC?

Mr. ELLINGTON: Well, we started out - and I don't know if this is going
to answer your question like you'd like to have answered, but we are
probably enjoying some of our finest times. Some of the times that when
I took over as chairman, and I'm certainly not taking credit for this,
but we had, we've got over 2,000 members and just not very long ago we
only had 1,800 legislative members. So ALEC is growing and enjoying one
of its finer times.

GROSS: Does it trouble you that documents that had been private are now
public? What impacts do you think that will have on your organization to
be scrutinized by the press in a way that it never has before?

Mr. ELLINGTON: Ma'am, I don't think we have done anything at ALEC that -
and I don't know, you know, exactly what's been leaked. I don't know
what's out there. But I don't think we've done anything that we're
ashamed of, so you know, I don't see it bothering us.

GROSS: My guest is Noble Ellington, the national chairman of ALEC, the
American Legislative Exchange Council.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the group ALEC, the American Legislative
Exchange Council, which brings together state lawmakers with
representatives of major corporations to write model bills that can be
introduced into state legislatures.

Earlier, we talked with journalist John Nichols, who has been analyzing
recently leaked documents from the ALEC archive.

Let's get back to my interview with the national chairman of ALEC, Noble
Ellington, a Republican member of the Louisiana state legislature.

How has having been introduced to and being able to create a
relationship with the corporate representatives in ALEC been helpful to
you in your career in the Louisiana state legislature?

Mr. ELLINGTON: Opportunity to visit with them as well and find out what
some of the issues that they would like to see that they feel like is
something that would enhance them. And I certainly don't dodge that
issue. That would be part of something that could possibly enhance them.
But in my mind, when we help, and we talk about corporations - or I say
we. I try not to, but it appears that some out there think that they are
the enemy. And I see them as friends. And I see them as the ones who are
creating the jobs and there seem to be some out there who think
government should be the ones creating the jobs. I see the corporations
as creating the jobs, adding to the wealth of individuals out there who
are working for them. And so I, you know, I think any time we can do
something that - I do something for a corporation in Winnsboro and it
creates 25 jobs, then I think I've done something good to help my
community and on a larger scale to help my country.

GROSS: What about if you've helped cut back a public program and lost 25
jobs?

Mr. ELLINGTON: What if we had?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. 'Cause part of ALEC's goal, I think, is to...

Mr. ELLINGTON: Is less government?

GROSS: Is less government. Exactly.

Mr. ELLINGTON: There's no doubt about that. But if I did, hopefully down
the road were going to be creating some jobs to take those, to take the
place of those that we lost. I just don't see the role of government to
be able to - and certainly I'm not saying that we don't need people
working for government, but their primary goal shouldn't be to create
jobs.

GROSS: Do you think the organization should be more transparent so that
citizens know when bills are being drafted with input by corporations
who stand to make profits from the legislation?

Mr. ELLINGTON: I think our model legislation, as it - when it comes
before state legislatures, it is absolutely as transparent as it can
get. While we may be discussing it, it may not be transparent, but
before it's passed, legislators have to say we approve this model
legislation. Not the corporations. They can't say. They don't have a
vote. Legislators say. And then a state legislator can then introduce
that model legislation in his state. It goes through the – it is
assigned to a committee. It goes through a committee. The public has
input, the public has an opportunity to hear, they have an opportunity
to talk to their legislators about the legislation, so I don't see how
you can get much more transparent than that.

GROSS: But I was talking about transparency in the early process, during
the drafting of the bill, when the corporations are involved in, when
they do have input into what the ingredients will be.

Mr. ELLINGTON: They do, but that doesn't make it law. That makes it
nothing but a piece of model legislation. And if a legislator doesn't
choose to introduce it, then it's one of those thousand bills that's in
the library.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you so
much for your time.

Mr. ELLINGTON: Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. You are more than welcome. And
thank you.

GROSS: Okay. Bye-bye.

Mr. ELLINGTON: Bye-bye.

GROSS: Noble Ellington is the national chairman of ALEC, the American
Legislative Exchange Council, and a Republican member of the Louisiana
state legislature.

You'll find links to ALEC's website, the Center for Media and
Democracy's archive of leaked ALEC documents, and The Nation magazine's
coverage of those documents, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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