There have been a lot of protests in Indianapolis over the past few years. Protests about the environment, marriage equality, minimum wage, LGBTQ civil rights, #BlackLivesMatter, reproductive rights and others have been held on Monument Circle and the steps of the Indiana Statehouse en masse. But there is one protest scheduled for later this month that literally wraps up all of the previous protests in one large box.
About 100 people gathered in a meeting room at the Central Library Monday to learn more about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which will hold its annual meeting in Indianapolis July 27 – 29. As an organization ALEC is a bit hard to describe and even harder to understand ... or actually fathom, which is why the panel discussion was held. But most, if not all, of the attendees learned that ALEC and its influence on state and federal government is questionable at best and is flat out evil at worst.
Imagine if you will an exclusive club for legislators and people of influence in government, businesses and corporations. The club meets at least once a year in what can only be described as a "mock legislature" where those corporate leaders and legislators sit side by side and discuss and vote on ideas and issues they believe should be presented to state legislatures all over the country. The ideas and issues always benefit the nature of big business, whether directly or indirectly. Once the club determines the course of action, legislators take those ideas and issues back to their states in the form of proposed bills to pass.
That is ALEC in a nutshell and how it does what it does. On one hand it sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie. The aliens gather on the mother ship to determine how to take over civilization, and then send drones out throughout the world to infiltrate society to eventually take over the world. So what always saves the world in the end? The organized resistance of the people brings education and awareness to eventually stop the evil empire from taking over. Monday's meeting at the library was one of several gatherings of the "resistance" to ALEC.
ALEC is a membership-based organization, so its meetings are private and are not open to the public, despite the large gatherings of elected public officials present. Therefore, transparency is a major issue for those questioning ALEC's practices and influence in local government. The Internal Revenue Service lists ALEC as a 501c(3) non-profit education organization, so donations are tax deductible, including membership fees. ALEC also fundraises "scholarship" dollars as a part of their mission. But instead of scholarships for students to attend higher education or for workers to learn trade skills — how we typically assume scholarships are used — these scholarships are to sponsor legislators to attend ALEC functions and conferences to "learn" about what corporations want to see in legislation. And since charitable donations are not tracked and monitored, there is no way to specifically determine how much financial influence a corporation has.
Labor interests, education advocates, environmental groups and government watchdog organizations are just a sampling of the greater public with concerns about ALEC's influence in government. Presenters in Monday's panel discussion included Jane Carter — an economist with labor organization AFSCME, Julia Vaughn with Common Cause Indiana, Joel Hand with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and Jesse Kharbanda with the Hoosier Environmental Council. Each group represented illustrated how legislation we've seen in the Indiana General Assembly has been influenced, created and/or written by ALEC. State Representative Matt Pierce (D- Bloomington) also sat on the panel to give a perspective of ALEC's influence among his colleagues at the statehouse.
From a labor standpoint ALEC is the primary influence behind issues like right-to-work, prevailing wage and other legislation that reduces the voice of the union employee.
"Right-to-wok was one of ALEC's first model bills," says Carter. "They also push to limit our right to collectively bargain and they also push a lot of legislation that protects the minimum wage. They push legislation on voter ID. A lot of the legislation that ALEC puts forward is directly harming middle class middle wage earners across the country."
Carter, who is a specialist in privatization and outsourcing, says her drive to follow ALEC's activities is because of its influence in privatization bills, such as transportation and transit, solid waste, parking meters, toll roads (think of the Indiana Toll Road deal) and private prisons. Collectively those public services, entities and programs are worth $6 trillion dollars in the private industry, according to Carter.
Vaughn echoed Carter's assessment of ALEC, adding that the lack of transparency is one of the most disturbing aspects of how ALEC operates in their influence of lawmakers.
"Unfortunately our big concern is that big money is controlling the political process," says Vaughn. "It controls the legislative process through lobbyists and lobbying. It's controlling the electoral process when groups like ALEC get involved and try to disenfranchise numbers of Americans because they don't have a government-issued ID."
Vaughn says Common Cause is all about keeping government accountable and transparent, something ALEC doesn't want. Campaign finance reform, open records, voting rights and redistricting reform are among the issues Common Cause fights for in Indiana.
"We care about process," says Vaughn. "We care about how things are conducted, how they operate. We want things to be fair and we don't want big money to have all the power in our system."
Kharbanda says ALEC's influence in the Indiana General Assembly in terms of environmental legislation is very evident. Gov. Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) are ALEC members along with several current legislators. There were some major* bills proposed in the last legislative session — especially involving the environment — that were ALEC-influenced bills. But Kharbanda says the influence of ALEC is much more than people and bills as an ideology.
"When talking about a group like ALEC, the issue isn't pro-business or anti-business or virtuous businesses that operate in Indiana. Neither is it about being free market. And the issue isn't about partisanship, necessarily," says Kharbanda. "The issue with ALEC is that it undermines the democratic process, in Indiana and around the United States. And that is because you are developing public policy behind closed doors in a resort or a fancy hotel rather than in an open public transparent process that either happens in the General Assembly or in a place where a variety of different stakeholders can come together and craft fair-minded balanced public policy."
Hand acknowledged that education is a newcomer to the ALEC party, but the influence is there and progressing rapidly through the rise of private schools and charter schools and the voucher system in Indiana, all under the guise of education reform. Hand says what appears to be a noble cause of education reform on the surface is actually a foundational and fundamental shift toward privatized education. For-profit corporations are behind the administration of charter schools and education reform programs. The cycle begins by changing the perception of public schools as inferior, forcing accountability mandates and other requirements on public schools that in turn forces their focus away from liberal arts education (art, music, social sciences, etc.) to a mandated English-Math curriculum.
"And I think this is a main driver for ALEC," says Hand. "If it's not a S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, then it doesn't get taught in the public school system. That creates a need then for parents who want to have their child receive a well-rounded education to look outside the public school system."
Hand says it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — education becomes a hot commodity and a new profitable industry, at the expense of a public education for all.
The list of groups targeted, disenfranchised and enraged by ALEC is large. But Carter says the good news is that the more people know about ALEC and its influence and activities, the more they can react and reverse the trend. Several businesses who were once members of ALEC are now disassociated with the organization because of public influence and outrage. Public rallies and protests have encouraged companies to back out. And without business members, ALEC can't function or influence as it has for over 40 years.
That's why when ALEC comes to Indianapolis for its annual meeting in two weeks, opposing groups and organizations plan to be ready with rallies, protests and other educational opportunities for the public to learn about what is really going on behind closed doors.Editor's note as of 4:40 pm: After publication, Jesse Kharbanda requested clarification on the amount of bills proposed in the last legislative session; he notes it would be more accurate to characterize his remarks as referencing a few major bills that were proposed instead of "several." We've since updated.