By Ed Pilkington, Guardian UK
American Legislative Exchange Council forms new initiative
Offshoot will target ‘villages, towns, cities and counties’
The rightwing group Alec is preparing to launch a new nationwide network that will seek to replicate its current influence within state legislatures in city councils and municipalities.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, founded in 1973, has become one of the most pervasive advocacy operations in the nation. It brings elected officials together with representatives of major corporations, giving those companies a direct channel into legislation in the form of Alec “model bills”.
Critics have decried the network as a “corporate bill mill” that has spread uniformly-drafted rightwing legislation from state to state. Alec has been seminal, for instance, in the replication of Florida’s controversial “stand-your-ground” gun law in more than 20 states.
Now the council is looking to take its blueprint for influence over statewide lawmaking and drill it down to the local level. It has already quietly set up, and is making plans for the public launch of, an offshoot called the American City County Exchange (ACCE) that will target policymakers from “villages, towns, cities and counties”.
The new organisation will offer corporate America a direct conduit into the policy making process of city councils and municipalities. Lobbyists acting on behalf of major businesses will be able to propose resolutions and argue for new profit-enhancing legislation in front of elected city officials, who will then return to their council chambers and seek to implement the proposals.
In its early publicity material, Alec says the new network will be “America’s only free market forum for village, town, city and county policymakers”. Jon Russell, ACCE’s director, declined to comment on the initiative.
Alec spokesman Wilhelm Meierling also declined to say how many corporate and city council members ACCE has attracted so far, or to say when the new initiative would be formally unveiled. But he confirmed that its structure would mirror that of Alec’s work in state legislatures by bringing together city, county and municipal elected officials with corporate lobbyists.
“As a group that focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism, we believe our message rings true at the municipal level just as it does in state legislatures,” he said.
In December, the Guardian revealed that Alec was facing funding problems as a result of fallout from its backing of “stand-your-ground” laws, in the wake of the shooting in Florida of the black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The Guardian also disclosed that Alec had initiated a “prodigal son project”, designed to woo back corporate donors that had broken off relations with the group amid the gun-law furore.
The extension of its techniques to city councils and municipalities across America offers Alec the chance to open up a potential source of funding that might help it solve its budgetary crisis. There are almost 500,000 local elected officials, many with considerable powers over schools and local services that could be attractive to big business.
Alec makes the appeal to corporations explicit in its funding material for the new ACCE exchange. It offers companies “founders committee” status in return for $25,000 a year and “council committee” membership for $10,000.
By joining ACCE’s council committee, corporate lobbyists can “participate in policy development and network with other entrepreneurs and municipal officials from around the country”. In committee meetings, lobbyists will be allowed to “present facts and opinions for discussion” and introduce resolutions for new policies that they want to see implemented in a city. At the end of such meetings, the elected officials present in the room will take a vote before returning to their respective council chambers armed with new legislative proposals.
Nick Surgey of the Center for Media and Democracy, which monitors Alec’s activities, said: “It just wouldn’t be possible for any corporation to effectively lobby the hundreds of thousands of local elected officials in the US, which until now has left our local mayors and school board members largely free from the grasps of coordinated lobbyists. Alec is now trying to change that.”
One of the main criticisms that have been levelled against Alec is that its influence distorts the democratic process by giving corporations a handle over lawmaking. Similar fears are now being expressed about the intentions of ACCE in American cities.
Natalia Rudiak, a Democratic city council member in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said she was “offended” by the suggestion she needed an outside body such as ACCE, which is licensed in Arlington, Virginia, to tell her what her community needed.
“Local politics in America is the purest form of democracy,” she said. “There is no buffer between me and the public. So why would I want the involvement of a third party acting on behalf of a few corporate interests?”
Rudiak added that she found ACCE’s boast that it will be “America’s only free market forum” patronising.
“If by ‘free market’ they mean weighing supply against demand in the best interests of the people of Pittsburgh,” she said, “then we are debating those issues in the council chamber every single day.”