By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Droves of conservative politicians checked into the Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville last week for a big meeting about the state of political affairs.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) put on the three-day conference. The idea of such meetings–and ALEC had nine last year—is to share information among state legislators and businessmen concerning everything from right to work laws to ending the “death tax” on inherited wealth.
Sharing does go on but there is not really an exchange of ideas. ALEC members all believe the same things: regulation is bad, lower taxes are good, private enterprise is good, single payer healthcare is bad, and so on.
They think the Republican tax bill is very good.
“This bill will raise revenue over a ten-year period by over $1½ trillion dollars,” said Economist Arthur Laffer.
“The next two decades will be the greatest period of economic growth in U.S. history,” he added.
ALEC’s critics do not share such relentlessly positive optimism. Eleven groups including the Central Labor Council, Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club sponsored a rally and protest against ALEC Thursday.
“No hate, no fear. ALEC is not welcome here!” chanted protestors walking across the Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge.
“It’s a corruption of democracy. It’s driving legislators to represent the interests of the corporations rather than the interests of the people,” said Nancy Stetten.
Stetten was with a group of about seventy-five protestors who stopped briefly at the Walk of Fame Park and then marched to the Omni Hotel.
“We’re marching because ALEC is having their meeting here in Nashville and corporate lobbyists are drafting bills that will be introduced into our legislature, bills that attack healthcare, that attack workers’ rights, that attack immigrant rights, that attack voting rights, all sorts of things that are not good for our community,” said Anne Barnett, an organizer holding a bullhorn.
Inside the warm Omni Hotel literature tables line the second floor hallway. There are policy papers, sample bills, books, press clippings, and lots of signage. The Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, and the Institute for Free Speech are in attendance.
Members met in conference rooms to discuss pensions, e-commerce, broadband, healthcare, energy, agriculture, environment, education, civil and criminal justice, homeland security, economic development, and taxes.
What happens at these private sessions is more dissemination and strategy than debate. ALEC has a team of legal experts who draft legislation on a myriad of issues. Last year state legislators used ALEC models to introduce some 200 bills around the country. About 20 percent became law.
Anti-ALEC literature lists ten “Worst ALEC Bills”. They include blocking paid sick leave, repealing Obamacare, protecting “dark money” that comes from corporations who donate to legislative races anonymously, voter ID laws, banning living wage laws, promoting right to work laws, passing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and lowering states’ renewable energy standards.
Of Tennessee’s ninety-nine representatives, fifteen are ALEC members. There are thirty-three Tennessee state senators. Ten are ALEC members. According to Stetten, about one quarter of all state legislators in the U.S. are ALEC members and she says ninety-eight percent of ALEC’s funding comes from big corporations like Exxon Mobil, State Farm, and Koch Industries.
“ALEC is a little-known organization which has great influence on state legislators,” says Stetten. She said ALEC’s goal is to roll back government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
For its part, ALEC says it is focused on economic growth because when people are prosperous, they are happy.
At a breakfast meeting Friday, Economist Steven Moore said President John Kennedy reduced corporate taxes and the economy grew. He said the Reagan tax cuts in 1981 and 1986 spurred growth, too. Moore said the current Republican tax bill will be the biggest economic boost since the Clinton welfare reform act in 1996.
ALEC’s core principles are emblazoned on all its literature: limited government, free markets, and federalism. CEO Lisa Nelson said one of ALEC’s primary goals is to make sure government regulation doesn’t stifle innovation. Governor Bill Haslam echoed that sentiment when he spoke at the luncheon on Thursday.
“Jobs get created when people put capital at risk. We’ve created that environment and because of that we have way out grown not just the national economy but our own budget projections. So we’re ended up with that great problem of we’ve brought in more revenue than we were projecting,” Haslam said.