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Beam: Whose reform ideas were they?

Last Modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 6:32 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Republican governors across the country over the last couple of years have made education and pension reforms some of the key goals of their administrations. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal joined the movement during the Legislature’s 2012 regular session, and other GOP governors like his latest plan to eliminate income taxes.

Have you ever wondered what may have brought about this sudden emphasis on reform by so many governors at the same time? Did they come up with their own ideas or did they have some outside help?

Thanks to investigative work by a number of newspapers and other organizations, some of the credit appears to belong to a little-known organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The Washington Post nearly a year ago said ALEC was formed in 1973 by conservative activists Lou Barnett and Paul Weyrich, who also founded the conservative Heritage Foundation. The newspaper said ALEC’s goal was to bring conservative economic policy ideas to the state and local level.

ALEC says on its website that it is a non-profit organization that “provides a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level policy issues.” Its most valuable service has been the writing of some 800 model legislative bills that can be used by governors and legislators anywhere.

The Charleston (S.C.) Post Courier in April last year reported that ALEC “has a hand in S.C. politics.” It quoted state Sen. Mike Rose, who was asked about a bill he was sponsoring.

“This is an American Legislative Exchange Council bill,” Rose told his colleagues. “What I would like to do over the break is to do the research now with ALEC and address the senator from Orangeburg’s concerns.”

The Post Courier said ALEC is a Washington-based, mostly corporate-funded non-profit that pairs lawmakers across the country with business interests.

“Since 1973, they have worked together in private — often at resort-hosted retreats — to craft proposed laws addressing everything from health care to education to gun laws and even voting rights,” the newspaper said.

The Star-Telegram of Fort Worth, Texas, said of ALEC, “It may be the most powerful force in Texas politics you’ve never heard of.” The newspaper in December of 2011 said more than half of the members of the Texas Legislature had ties to ALEC.

Louisiana newspapers reported last month that two liberal groups claimed Jindal’s proposal to eliminate state income taxes came from policies advocated by ALEC. A spokesman for the governor denied the allegation, saying Jindal was working with legislators and stakeholders on his income tax plans.

ALEC defends its model bills, saying other national organizations do the same thing and model bills “can be taken, modified or rejected, depending on the needs of a particular legislation.”

Some ALEC model bills deal with teacher evaluations, School Children First acts, the creation and expansion of charters schools, parent trigger bills that let parents vote to turn schools over to private interests and voter ID laws.

State legislators introduce about 1,000 ALEC modeled bills every year, and nearly 20 percent of them become law.  An ALEC official told Bloomberg Business Week, “… We don’t know who’s reaching in and grabbing what. It’s a library service to members, should they choose to want to use it…. And they use it, and they don’t even tell us…”

New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie last year pushed a number of bills that had ties to ALEC legislation, according to the Star-Ledger of Newark. One of ALEC’s model bills calls for teachers to be rated “highly effective,” “effective” and “ineffective.” Christie’s measure added a “partially effective” category. ALEC also suggests that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on standardized test scores, which is what Louisiana’s education reform legislation does.

Reform measures sponsored by Jindal last year – which are tied up in court – contained some of those same elements. However, it isn’t likely the governor is going to give ALEC any of the credit for his reform movement.

NJ.com last year said, “There is nothing illegal in what ALEC does or in using its bills, but critics say New Jersey officials are handing off a cardinal duty — do your own work — to a national group with unique ties to the business world…” NJ.com is the state’ largest news website and it is affiliated with 12 of New Jersey’s major newspapers.

Although there appears to be nothing illegal about ALEC’s work, it lost considerable support early in 2012 when it gained national exposure. The National Public Pension Coalition noted that 12 major corporations and a number of legislators cut their ties with ALEC. The corporations included Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

An attorney speaking for ALEC last year told Bloomberg Business Week, “ALEC is no different than other organizations that focus on state policy. The difference is there is a committed effort by extreme liberal front groups to diminish ALEC’s effectiveness in supporting free-market solution in the states. This is a dishonest attack as these groups do not hold other organizations to the same standards…”

Rose, the South Carolina legislator mentioned earlier, said, “In the end, our Legislature passes or doesn’t pass legislation, so the origin of the legislation really doesn’t matter.”

That is true, of course, but there is something about ALEC being injected into the legislative process that doesn’t seem quite right.

• • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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