|Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York, refers back to a point made in the documentary, "The United States of ALEC," recently shown at Plattsburgh State followed by discussion.|
PLATTSBURGH CITY - Fri. April 5, 2013
ATTENTION: New York State citizens. How many of your state legislators are card-carrying members of ALEC?
If you're not familiar with the American Legislative Exchange Council you can raise your awareness by watching the Bill Moyers documentary, "The United States of ALEC." The doc was shown Friday evening at the Plattsburgh State campus with comments and Q&A afterward with Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York.
"The United States of ALEC" shows how the organization operates like a lobbying group under the guise of a charitable organization but without the restrictions placed on lobbyists thanks to its 501(c)(3) status. Until a whistleblower came forward with documentation, ALEC was out of public view, stealthily influencing state legislators to promote and approve model legislation it had created.
Why the secrecy? Despite labeling itself as a bipartisan organization, ALEC pushes an agenda that many voters oppose. For example, it's been the covert promoter of model bills – some that have become law in other states – for privatizing education, restricting voter rights, and limiting the powers of unions. Also it works against certain types of proposed legislation like campaign finance regulation. It's funded by big power players, corporations and conservative groups, who want to change the system on the local level to benefit their goals.
Businesses and political groups have the right to promote whatever bills they want. But in the case of ALEC, the M.O., the behind-closed-door machinations, is the problem..
(For fun I could make an allusion between ALEC and evil secret organizations you see in spy adventure stories but that wouldn't be fair. SPECTRE and THRUSH are fictional entities.)
Obviously you should be aware if your elected representative belongs to ALEC and is really looking out for the interests of the power players, not the average Joe or Jane. As a voter-taxpayer you're entitled to know if a state legislator is a fellow traveler of ALEC, right?
Not in New York State. You could hear some audience members reacting in surprise – like gasps of consternation – when Susan Lerner told them that New State legislators exempted themselves from FOIL, the Freedom of Information Law. Susan explained: "We really don't know if we have two or three ALEC members or whether we have 15, 20, or more [in the NY State legislature]."
Susan added: "We have our suspicions, it's really interesting that voter ID laws keep getting introduced in our legislature, that various versions of what I call the 'Stand and Shoot' statute, the 'Stand Your Ground' law that victimized Trayvon Martin, have been introduced in our legislature repeatedly."
So far ALEC, she pointed out, hasn't passed any of its model bills in New York but has successfully blocked ones introduced by others, important bills that had broad based voter support.
|An image from the Bill Moyers ALEC documentary showing someone who supported the organization's goals. Another key reason not to trust ALEC.|
An audience member asked what could be done to deal with ALEC.
Susan replied that one way was holding our elected officials accountable. "[ALEC] has managed to achieve what it has achieved by acting in secrecy." She mentioned that only one official was listed on the ALEC website as state chairman but that person was no longer in office.
She asked the audience to call their state legislators and ask each one about belonging to ALEC. Then citizens should call or email Common Cause with their inquiry results.
Susan said: "We're going to start to get some answers. The ones who aren't members of ALEC will tell us. Some may actually say they are. Then we will have a list of the ones who are surprisingly quiet on the topic. And we're going to have a much better idea who is active [in ALEC]."
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," she noted. "We need to smoke them out and bring them out into the open."
She explained Common Cause has filed a complaint with the IRS challenging ALEC's tax exempt status. "This racket is really stopped if the IRS lifts the tax exempt status."
The tax lawyer for Common Cause reviewed the documentation and stated the case against ALEC was one of the strongest he had ever seen. He was so outraged by what was going on that he volunteered to take the case pro bono.
The case is proceeding but no one knows what is happening.
Susan said: "Once a complaint is filed the IRS goes into a lengthy and careful and slow
review process and they do not talk to the complainants, they don't publicize what they're doing. They are really trying to get to the bottom and verify what we've told them, [to] give ALEC a fair chance to explain what it is doing." A proceeding, she noted, can take two or three years.