By Denise Tessier
In 2013, more light than previously before was shined on the secretive yet highly influential 40-year-old corporatist lobbying organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
The Albuquerque Journal barely mentioned ALEC in news stories in 2013, and even cited ALEC data to justify its position in an editorial about the economy. By year’s end, the Journal had yet to produce any stories detailing how much sway the so-called “bill mill” has held and likely still holds with policymakers in New Mexico.
And even the semi-monthly Corrales Comment had more information than the Journal on Gov. Susana Martinez’s secret meeting in August with ALEC funders the Koch brothers at Tamaya Resort; the Journal’s incomplete coverage was downright timid. As my colleague Arthur Alpert pointed out, with this story Corrales Comment editor Jeff Radford “ate the Albuquerque Journal’s journalistic lunch.”
We reported in August that ALEC counts as members 13 New Mexico representatives and four state senators, according to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy. The Journal has yet to do any reporting to confirm this.
With the New Mexico State Legislature close to revving up its 2014 session, it’s time for the Journal to directly ask the state’s representatives and senators whether they are introducing bills that have come directly from ALEC, where they are drafted by corporations and industry rather than consumers and citizens.
Last month in Washington, D.C., ALEC held a closed-door “States and Nation Policy Summit” – featuring, among others, Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Republican Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan – which reportedly produced a 2014 agenda of “model bills” about which New Mexicans should be aware.
Again, thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy, the 2014 bills and “extreme” ALEC agenda have come to light. They include:
- A bill that essentially would give public employees the “right” to work for less, called the Public Employee Choice Act.
- Opposition to labels on food as to country of origin.
- Elimination of professional licensing – in jobs ranging from doctors to barbers.
- Bills that make it harder for consumers to hold corporations accountable for harm.
- Bills that further undermine public education while lining the pockets of “for-profit” educational companies. As Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said in this interview with radio host and author Thom Hartmann, taxpayer-funded vouchers already are going to private entities that don’t always operate with minimum standards or achieve minimum outcomes.
- Bills that would undermine patient rights and social safety nets, among them a Paul Ryan-inspired “Medicaid Block Grant Act” (scroll to page 10 of the pdf link), which would cut as much as 75 percent from low-income healthcare programs.
- Bills that would protect polluters and attack clean energy sources, the latter by such means as metering and charging for use of solar energy. The Huffington Post reported on an example of this metering scheme in November, revealing that the Arizona Corporate Commission voted to charge ratepayers a monthly fee of 70 cents per kilowatt generated by solar energy installed on their roof. (Arizona Public Service, which has coal, nuclear, gas and oil-fired power plants, had originally proposed charging customers who install rooftop solar panels an additional $50-100 on their monthly bills.) The newly adopted fee would translate into approximately $5 for the average homeowner with a solar power installation, according to HuffPo.
In July of 2013, goals and aims similar to ALEC’s 2014 agenda were revealed in documents obtained by the Guardian related to funding proposals submitted from 34 states – including New Mexico – to the State Policy Network, “an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level.” According to the Guardian, the documents reflected that:
Conservative groups across the US are planning a coordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers’ compensation and the environment. . . .
SPN gathered the grant proposals from the 34 states and then submitted them for funding to the Searle Freedom Trust, “a private foundation that in 2011 donated almost $15 million to largely rightwing causes.” From the Guardian:
The trust, founded in 1998, draws on the family fortune of the late Dan Searle of the GD Searle & Company empire – now part of Pfizer – which created NutraSweet. The trust is a major donor to such mainstays of the American right and the Tea Parties as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heartland Institute and the State Policy Network itself.
Research and report on the detriments of streamlined sales tax and New Mexico uncompetitive tax policy. Rio Grand (sic) will contract with a CPA and an economist to conduct the research and hold a public forum to present the findings.
According to the document, RGF received previous Searle grants in 2009 and 2011 of $30,000 each.
The Journal’s Thom Cole related some of this information to Journal readers as a secondary topic in an UpFront column Nov. 30, at the end of the year. From the column:
Major U.S. corporations have been among the financial supporters of the State Policy Network, a nationwide network of so-called free-market think tanks, according to a new report by the Center for Media and Democracy.
The Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque is a member of the State Policy Network, based in suburban Washington, D.C.
In the report, the Center for Media and Democracy said it had obtained a public document listing the network’s 2010 funding sources. The list included the Philip Morris and Reynolds American tobacco companies, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and the Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner Cable communications corporations.
Cole added that he “asked the State Policy Network whether the list was accurate but received no response. . . .”
The Journal — and all media — must be vigilant that they are not being used by ALEC and SPN, because use of the media is central to its lobbying efforts, and ALEC is quite successful in this aspect of basic public relations. As this interesting-info-filled memo from ALEC’s August board of directors meeting states plainly:
Proactive media engagement has continued to increase. Staff members are being positioned as policy experts and are becoming a source for media rather than a target of media. Issues-based communication is at the forefront of media engagement.
The Center for Media and Democracy has posted online a “reporter’s guide” to covering ALEC and the State Policy Network (SPN), which provides a thorough background on the groups and what they aim to accomplish, mainly: privatization of education and public pension systems, a rolling back of environmental regulations and disenfranchising people of color, students and the elderly by making it harder for them to vote. As the guide states:
It is back in the states where the real synergy happens. When ALEC bills are introduced in state legislatures, the SPN think tanks are often standing by to write the studies, spin the most favorable data, provide the expert talking points, put out the media releases, do the press interviews that give an aura of academia to the efforts — or they may already have these in the can or in the works before the bill is even introduced in the legislature by an ALEC lawmaker.
With continuing gridlock at the national level, it is indeed “back in the states where the real synergy happens.” It is critical that New Mexico’s political leaders – and its media – strive for vigilance in ferreting out what agendas originate from and are for New Mexicans, and which are not.