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Opinion

Legislators team to combat smart, and rich, ALEC

COLUMBUS - In 1989 state Rep. Robert Hagan was invited to attend a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Orlando, Fla.

The invitation came from then-state Rep. Dale Van Vyven, a suburban Cincinnati Republican who was a major water carrier for business on health care and insurance issues.

Mr. Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat, was an unlikely ALEC guest.

He stood in front of about 800 people and outlined a bill he had introduced to provide universal health care.

Then ALEC members voted on what stance they should take.

“Four percent of the people there supported it,” recalled Mr. Hagan, who is now a state senator. “They wanted to act like they were trying to be fair.“

Since then, Mr. Hagan has tracked ALEC's activities.

He has learned like many others that the group is a major player in the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments - and in every state capitol as a result.

ALEC was formed 30 years ago by conservative activist Paul Weyrich and its winning strategy is drafting “model legislation” that legislators introduce and make law with the help of the nation's most powerful lobbyists.

“ALEC's members are charged up with all of this very conservative legislation and they get support. And they put beaucoup money behind it,” Mr. Hagan said.

Last year, the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Resources Defense Council released a study on ALEC: “Corporate America's Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council.”

ALEC, which describes itself as “the nation's largest bipartisan, individual membership association of state legislators,” has said it was instrumental in the enactment of about 450 state laws in the 1999 and 2000 legislative sessions.

“... ALEC is little more than a tax-exempt screen for major U.S. corporations and trade associations that use it to influence legislative activities at the state level,” the study said. “ALEC allows these corporations to do what they couldn't attempt directly or openly without risking public criticism. “

ALEC's major underwriters have included Enron Corp., the American Nuclear Energy Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Amoco, Chevron, Coors Brewing Co., Shell, Texaco, Chlorine Chemistry Council, Union Pacific Railroad, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Waste Management, Philip Morris Management Corp., and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.

Last March, dozens of legislators who are ALEC members urged Congress not to provide states with money to help them balance their budgets.

“It is thus clear that a federal bailout would lead to higher state spending, more growth in government, and increased burden on taxpayers,” the letter said. Signers included state Rep. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta), ALEC's state chair.

State legislators across the country are challenging ALEC's power.

Mr. Hagan was among the founding members of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

And he relies on the Center for Policy Alternatives, known as CPE, for model legislation on progressive causes, including his proposal to require state government to negotiate the purchase of prescription drugs in bulk and provide savings to Ohioans without insurance.

In the June 9 issue of The Nation, John Nichols, the magazine's Washington correspondent and a former associate editor of The Blade, wrote: “For all the good efforts of CPA and other groups, however, there is general agreement that progressives still need more organizational muscle -and better coalitions - if they want to counter ALEC's multistate, multi-issue thrust.”

Andy Gussert, an activist who helped compile the “Trojan Horse in the States” study, is working on a new group called ALICE - the American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange. It is working with groups including the Center for Policy Alternatives and the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network to confront ALEC.

“Think of ALICE as ALEC's younger, smarter, more progressive, and more feisty sister,” Mr. Gussert told The Nation.

Mr. Hagan supports the effort, which has a Web site at www.highroadnow.org

He recalled one session that was shut down because Democrats had outmaneuvered ALEC and American Electric Power to reject a resolution supporting President George W. Bush's “Clear Skies” initiative. It would roll back some deadlines for states and power plants to meet federal clean air standards.

At a May 6 forum sponsored by the Republican Governors Association in Columbus, Gov. Bob Taft joined utility executives in supporting the President's proposal and its Orwellian label.

“We have to combat what ALEC is doing,” said Mr. Hagan. “We're fighting the cause with our conscience and our beliefs and they're fighting it with money.”

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