The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/08/05
Grapevine, Texas — Georgia state Rep. Jill Chambers flew home this weekend with much of what she needs to push a proposal that would create virtual charter schools in Georgia, including a copy of a ready-made bill.
The Atlanta Republican picked up the idea and the model bill from a powerhouse conservative group that has quietly changed the way many laws are hatched in Georgia and other states. The organization, with a staff of 30 and a $5.5 million yearly budget, teams lawmakers up with corporate interests to push decidedly pro-business bills through state legislatures.
Any lawmaker who is a member of the group can simply log on to its Web site and find hundreds of bills to copy. They can shop for ideas on how to curb class-action lawsuits, help the telecommunications industry or toughen the criminal justice system.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, which ended its annual convention in Grapevine with a prayer breakfast Sunday, wields considerable influence in Georgia's newly Republican Legislature. And Georgia's stature within the organization has grown, too. State Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) became its national chairman this year, and the number of Georgia lawmakers who are members now tops 100.
This year, ALEC was the ghostwriter of several proposals, including the controversial Georgia bill to set limits on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.
"Tort reform was pretty much the ALEC model," Ehrhart said last week. "We used the ALEC model bill as our template."
The passage of the medical malpractice bill was a signature accomplishment of the first Republican majority in both the Georgia House and Senate in more than 130 years. It was the first piece of legislation Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law this year.
In 2004, Georgia lawmakers introduced 43 ALEC model bills and passed seven. Nationwide, legislators introduced 1,108 ALEC bills and enacted 178, according to the group. Totals for 2005 aren't available yet, but the list includes a law that makes it harder to bring a claim regarding asbestos or silica. Ehrhart said that initiative in Georgia was "purely an ALEC bill — every word."
He and other ALEC members said the organization allows state lawmakers from around the country to share ideas, exchange political strategies and get research and other information from think tanks and experts. Ehrhart said most ALEC members love tackling hard political issues. "We're policy geeks," he said. "That's what we do."
ALEC has drawn criticism from some political insiders who question the heavy influence of private-sector interests in drafting its model bills. They say that too many laws are born in the closed-door meetings of a relatively unknown but powerful organization.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said he is troubled when lawmakers introduce "cookie-cutter" bills crafted by outside groups.
"Certainly you want to be open to ideas from wherever they come from, but I'm not one to carry the agenda of an external, non-legislative group," Brown said. "I don't have a problem with the business community advancing their ideas, but I do have a problem with them essentially controlling the agenda."
A 'vital role' for business
ALEC, founded in 1973, claims a national membership of more than 2,400 state legislators in both political parties, as well as more than 300 private-sector members including BellSouth, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Motors and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The real work of ALEC takes place in private task force committee meetings, which are co-chaired by a legislator and an industry representative. A Texas state legislator and a Wal-Mart executive, for example, head the ALEC criminal justice task force.
In task force meetings, committee members work with ALEC's staff to write draft legislation, or model bills, addressing issues such as education, civil justice, technology, health and human services, and tax and fiscal policy. ALEC members can go to the group's Web site, www.alec.org, and access many of the 250 model bills the organization has written.
Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, says ALEC gives corporate interests the chance to hash out bills with lawmakers for months, even years, before the proposals ever reach a public forum.
"For industry, this is an incredible opportunity to get a lot of bang for their buck," Bender said. "Conversely, the general public is locked out of this process and doesn't have an opportunity to be in on the debate from the ground floor. Often, there has been substantial discussion and strategizing about a bill even before it's presented for a public forum."
Duane Parde, executive director of ALEC, said that while the group's members from industry can help shape model bills, only lawmakers are allowed to vote on final versions.
"We think the private sector has a vital role in the health of our nation's economy, and we need to hear their views," Parde said.
States as laboratories?
At this year's convention, ALEC task forces worked on bills to overhaul state election regulations, to allow citizens to use deadly force in their homes or vehicles before retreating from an intruder, and to discourage "baseless lawsuits against school districts, principals, teachers and other school personnel when those officials try to enforce discipline in the schools."
Parde said ALEC has traditionally steered clear of the social issues that some conservative organizations take on, such as abortion and gay marriage. Groups that focus on those issues, however, did have a presence at the ALEC convention. The National Right to Life Committee and the ProFamily Legislative Network were among those handing out literature from booths.
While the organization includes Democrats, it has become most influential in newly Republican legislatures across the country. In Georgia, its membership has grown from 42 two years ago to more than 100 in 2005.
Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said Georgia is probably an important state for ALEC because of its new Republican governor and majority-GOP House and Senate.
"When they have all three branches of government, they have a more aggressive strategy," Davies said. "They look at these states as laboratories to see if they can get some of these proposals passed at a national level."
One sign of ALEC's growing influence came Wednesday, when President Bush took a break from his vacation at his Crawford ranch to speak at its convention.
"ALEC has had a lot of state-level members who've gone on to Congress," said Bender. "The fact that the president showed up is an indication its influence is rising — although it has been a player for a long time."
Liberals fight back
Another sign of ALEC's success comes in the form of a new liberal group patterned after it. The Progressive Legislative Action Network will be launched next week with a conference in Seattle featuring former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, former California House Speaker Willie Brown and others.
"For too long, conservatives have been able to use huge sums of money to push the most radical right-wing policies through state legislatures," PLAN co-Chairman David Sirota declared in a press release about the conference. "PLAN is committed to putting together the necessary resources and necessary coalitions to help progressive legislators stop this unchecked extremism and start passing legislation that makes state governments work for ordinary citizens, not just monied special interests."
Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram), one of about 25 Georgia lawmakers who attended the ALEC conference, said last week that, while the group doesn't set his legislative agenda, it sometimes influences his ideas.
"ALEC is intended to exchange ideas between the public and private sector so we are aware of how other states have dealt with similar issues," Richardson said.
Chambers, a member of ALEC's education task force, said she referred to an ALEC model bill in her successful effort this year to pass legislation making it easier for charter schools to get exemptions from the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. At this year's workshop, moderated by three companies that operate charter schools, Chambers learned more about virtual charter schools. And she's thinking about how those schools could work in Georgia.
"It could benefit children who don't learn in a traditional school environment, such as children who are ill and have daytime doctor appointments, or children who have learning challenges such as attention-deficit disorder and can't sit still for long periods of time," she said.
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