This year’s South Carolina Legislative session is well underway and the latest bill (H.4894) proposing to use public money to fund private/religious schools has already been approved by the Ways and Means Committee in the House. Our local representative Gary Simrill spoke in favor of the bill in Ways and Means. In the full House on Tuesday March 20, two members of the house objected to this bill. After the objection 38 members of the House requested debate on it. Both John King and Tommy Pope of our delegation were in the 38 requesting debate. This does not mean H. 4894 is gone but only slowed somewhat. It can be called back for debate on short notice.
In February 2011 I attended a Senate hearing in Columbia of that year’s Voucher bill and was surprised to hear out-of-state groups touting the importance of approving such legislation. One group was a text book company publishing “creationist” textbooks for church-related schools. Another was a construction company from Virginia specializing in building private/religious schools. Obviously these corporations would benefit from the passage of this bill. It was a “follow the money” moment.
The more I learned about the background of voucher and tax credit legislation I understood why similar bills have been passed in other states and why efforts to pass these bills persist year after year. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) hires lawyers to write model bills whose purposes are to increase the profits of the over 500 corporations/trade group organizations who are their members. Model bills also reflect the extremely conservative ideology of the billionaire Koch brothers who heavily fund ALEC.
Companies such as Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Exxon, Boeing, Pfizer, or more locally Duke Energy or Bell South of South Carolina pay yearly fees of up to $10,000 for the opportunity through ALEC to sit down with groups of legislators from over the U.S. Their purpose is to to discuss and modify legislation benefiting their companies that they hope the attending legislative representatives will then introduce and attempt to get passed in their home states.
Legislators pay $50 per year to belong. Participating legislators, almost but not entirely conservative Republicans, are encouraged to attend yearly “conferences” and also may receive “scholarships” to attend. ALEC tax returns report about one million dollars are spent yearly on these financial gifts to cover the cost for legislators and their families to attend ALEC conventions at resorts in late summer after their legislative sessions.
Legislators do not declare these conferences as corporate gifts. While it might seem to be lobbying when private corporations pay money to sit in a room with state lawmakers to draft legislation to be introduced back home, ALEC claims that it merely educates lawmakers; that these are informational exchanges, not lobbying.
ALEC influenced taxpayer-subsidized school voucher bills have been introduced in numerous states, for example Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, and other states. Another ALEC effort you are likely familiar with are the voter ID bills. South Carolina, Wisconsin, Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee have passed voter ID laws and over 30 states introduced such bills. The purpose appears to be to make it harder for college students, seniors, and low-income citizens to vote. However, a prison construction company assisted in the writing of the bill template.
When I first heard of ALEC it seemed something out an Ayn Rand novel. It did not seem feasible that in our county, in our government with supposed checks and balances, corporate and personal greed could be so overwhelming. I find it alarming that these two groups are able to ignore the rights and needs of all citizens except those who, on the one hand have the money to buy, and on the other hand those who have the positions to be bought. More than that, the only way to fight for common people, common children at this point seems to be to tell the story and hope others are disturbed as well.
By coincidence, the same day I published this blog, Paul Krugman, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, published a column on ALEC. See:
Below are web links to some of the sites I consulted in writing about ALEC.
ALEC Exposed: The Koch Connection, Lisa Graves, The Nation, August, 1-11, 2011 http://www.thenation.com/article/161973/koch-connection
A Model To Avoid: Arizona’s Tuition Tax Credit Law, People of the American Way Foundation
ALEC Exposed: Business Domination, Inc., Joel Rogers and Laura Dresser, The Nation, August 1-8, 2011
Tuition Tax Credits, National Conference of State Legislators in 2012. (This reports on numerous states experiences with tax credits.)
ALEC Exposed: Rigging-Elections by John Nichols, The Nation, July 12, 2011
Shaping State Laws with Little Scrutiny, Laura Sullivan, NPR News Investigations
A CMD Special Report on ALEC’s Funding and Spending, Center for Media and Democracy, Lisa Grades, July 13 2011
What is ALEC? ALEC Exposed, Center for Media and Democracy, August, 2011