Have you heard about ALEC?

The Center for Media and Democracy has just published a must-read report for anyone concerned about the shadowy influence of money on public policy in the Ohio Statehouse.  The report is pretty dense, so we will try to provide some context and observations.

Organizations such as People for the American Way, Think Progress, and Common Cause have been doing great work exposing ALEC.  Another good, dense, report from earlier this year can be found here.  The Daily Kos had information on this organization back in 2011, and other reports from earlier this year were featured in the AFL-CIO web site.

What is ALEC?

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council.  The organization describes itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.”  The organization claims to work “to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level.”

In reality, ALEC is an influential voice for corporate special interests in state legislatures across the country, including Ohio.  What happens is that state legislators meet with corporate interests, including executives, lawyers, and lobbyists, to draft “model legislation.”  ALEC, with the primary assistance of cooperative legislators, push for the model bills to become law.

The February report on ALEC noted that model legislation focuses on “a wide range of issues, including education, voter suppression, immigration, worker’s rights, consumer rights, health care and prison systems.”  In Ohio in the first ten months of 2011, “33 bills were introduced in the Ohio legislature that are identical to or contain elements from 64 different ALEC ‘model’ proposals. Nine of those bills, containing elements from 33 pieces of ALEC legislation, have been signed into law.”

Why should we care?

Conservatives sharing ideas, no matter how bad, unconstitutional, or unpopular, is nothing new.  It no secret, for example, the John Kasich and Scott Walker share ideas about union busting, and that is part of what led to S.B. 5.  And we noted earlier this month we noted how the plan by some Ohio legislators to defund Planned Parenthood was based on laws in Texas that have been found to be unconstitutional.

Here is the key part:  because of various loopholes in campaign and financial disclosure laws, ALEC provides the ability for corporate interests to influence legislators without disclosing their role or contributions.

The recent report from the Center for Media and Democracy contains a nice tick-tock of how easily ALEC model language can be inserted into Ohio law.

ALEC funnels money to legislators primarily through “scholarships” that fund lawmaker travel to meetings.  Recently, meetings were held in Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Scottsdale.  What is the loophole:  because legislators pay a $100 membership fee to ALEC, and the General Assembly pays a $1000 membership fee, Ohio Legislators are not required to disclose the receipt of scholarship funds on their financial disclosure forms.

Go read the reports.  We want to emphasize two things:

1.        The Thin Line Between Legal and Illegal

Yes.  Corporate interests, by donating to ALEC’s “scholarship fund,” are able to pay for travel by Ohio legislators without disclosure.

Here is what is interesting.  Last month, an Ohio legislature was charged with felony bribery, along with charges related to campaign finance disclosure and ethics forms disclosure issues ( the ethics form violation is the same misdemeanor that Gov. Taft pled guilty to, receiving only a fine).

The center of the felony allegation is that the Representative received all-expenses-paid trips to Florida and California, plus cash and campaign contributions. According to the indictment, the Representative agreed to introduce legislation and sponsor legislation.

So . . . did the representative do anything really all that different from the legislators who received ALEC scholarships?  On the federal level, there is a website that tracks trips paid for by people with an interest in legislation: legistorm.com.  Since the Abramoff scandal, when rules were changed to try to cut back on trips paid for by lobbyists, groups started to skirt this rule by having the trips paid for by supposedly independent “educational foundations.”

Please don’t misunderstand us: we are not suggesting that the previously indicted Ohio Legislator didn’t do anything wrong.  But if someone would like to explain the practical implications – as opposed to legal technicalities – between the two situations, we will listen.  What this points to is a fundamental flaw in the oversight of the role of corporate money, and the ingenuity of people with money to try to provide benefits – legally – to legislators.

2.      Ohio Legislators Are Cheap Dates

Captain Renault famously said, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Here is the second thing that struck us.  The reporting on ALEC suggests that an Ohio legislator agreed to introduce some ALEC model legislation around the same time as a donation of a few thousand dollars was received by ALEC’s scholarship fund.  The amounts shock us.  Apparently, significant influence can be obtained for the costs of a few thousand dollars.

When we think of corruption or bribery, we prefer to think of suitcases full of cash or blocks on money stored in a freezer.  But apparently the truth is much less exciting.  It seems the going rate for special favors or legislation in Ohio is much less – perhaps the costs of a couple of nights in Florida or New Orleans.