ALEC: 50 Years of Attacking Environmental Protection and Democracy
October 3, 2023
October 4, 2023, marks 50 years of attacks on environmental protection and democracy by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). An estimated 98% of ALEC's funding comes from corporations and well-known conservative foundations established by the Koch, Bradley, Mercer, Searle, and Coors families, among others.
October 4, 2023, marks 50 years of attacks on environmental protection and democracy by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Since its founding in 1973, ALEC has painted itself as a “good government” group, yet any honest portrait of ALEC would depict it as one of the most secretive and powerful corporate lobbying clearinghouses in the country, a “model-bill factory” in which ALEC corporate and political members convene in closed-door task forces to draft model templates for legislation introduced and pushed through statehouses across the country.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) once called ALEC “corporate America’s Trojan Horse” for the enormous success that it has had in orchestrating a broad spectrum attack on environmental, health, and safety standards, as well as democratic rights and corporate accountability: “Most Americans undoubtedly would be shocked to learn that many of the state laws under which they live and work have actually been written by major U.S. corporations – not by state legislators they have elected to represent them.”
An estimated 98% of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations and well-known conservative foundations established by the Koch, Bradley, Mercer, Searle, and Coors families, among others. Although many companies have left ALEC over disagreements with its extremist agenda, others remain. Sponsors of ALEC’s 50th Anniversary Gala include Altria, UPS, PhrMA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Koch-funded front groups, Americans for Prosperity and Stand Together.
ALEC’s Attack on Environmental Protection
ALEC’s Environment, Energy and Agriculture task force continues to coordinate a barrage of legislative attacks on clean air, water, and the climate. A selection of key ALEC model bills compiled by the Center for Media and Democracy reads like a polluters’ bill of rights. Over the years, the task force has been stacked with representatives from Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, Duke Energy, American Gas Association, Peabody Energy, and other industry-connected groups.
Here are some other examples of ALEC’s 50-year attack on the environment:
- In the 1990s, ALEC introduced the “Economic Impact Statement Act” and other model bills requiring state agencies to conduct detailed “economic impact statements” and cost/benefit analysis to weaken existing and proposed environmental regulations. Another model popular with ALEC corporate sponsors were so-called “audit privilege” bills. Better understood as the “Polluter Protection Act”, these bills allowed polluters that reported self-conducted pollution and workplace safety “audits” to state regulators to restrict public access to the results.
- After the BP Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, ALEC adopted a model resolution that would limit legal liability for oil-spill responders who use toxic chemical dispersants to clean up oil spills. ALEC has also been a reliable critic of calls for a windfall-profits tax on oil companies.
- ALEC pushed a slew of “private property” rights bills in the 1990s, many designed to weaken the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and other popular laws. ALEC also pushed so-called “takings” bills, which invoked a business-friendly interpretation of the “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment to put the brakes on federal and state regulations.
- Meanwhile, ALEC was happy to help fossil fuel companies exploit public land. In 2010, ALEC introduced the “Eminent Domain Authority for Federal Lands Act,” which would authorize state governments to open federal parks and protected wilderness areas for fossil fuel exploration.
- Despite the plastic pollution crisis, ALEC has hamstrung community attempts to address it at the source by pushing model bills that preempt local plastic pollution control ordinances, such as bans or taxes on plastic bags and other single-use disposable containers. Preemption laws are a common way that ALEC has helped its corporate donors stifle community choice and grassroots attempts to address many other pressing problems as well.
Blocking Climate Solutions
- For years, ALEC’s energy policy has been guided by the “principle” that climate change is “inevitable.” It has backed efforts to block carbon emission policies and the transition to renewables. It worked to deter homeowners’ rights and incentives to install rooftop solar panels, opposed electric vehicle subsidies, supported former President Trump’s attempt to weaken auto emissions standards, and hosted a December 2013 conference in Washington, DC where lobbyists and legislators were urged to engage in “guerrilla warfare” to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed coal plant emissions standards.
- In recent years, ALEC has joined the fossil fuel industry and right-wing ideological attacks on green investment and banks that divest from fossil fuels. In 2023, fossil fuel money backed 165 pieces of legislation (many modeled after ALEC resolutions) introduced in 37 states “to weaponize government funds, contracts, and pensions to prevent companies and investors from considering commonplace risk factors in making responsible, risk-adjusted investment decisions.”
- ALEC’s climate change policies proved to be too extreme even for Exxon. In 2017, the company dropped its ALEC membership, after rejecting a proposed resolution that would have called on EPA to rescind its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon was just one of over 100 major corporations to leave ALEC “due its extreme agenda and anti-democratic operations,” Common Cause observed. Exxon left after giving an estimated $1.8 million to ALEC between 1997 and 2016, according to DeSmog.
- Many other corporations left ALEC after it pushed “Shoot First” bills modeled after a law passed in Florida, which George Zimmerman used to defend himself against charges for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin in 2017. The ALEC task force that adopted the model resolution – which extends criminal and civil immunity to shooters who claimed to feel threatened by another person (creating the “right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force”) was led by a representative of the National Rifle Association.
- ALEC’s “shoot first” bills are part of a legislative agenda that has disproportionately targeted and affected communities of color for many years, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. The group’s support for anti-abortion laws and other policies have also garnered support from religious fundamentalist groups that have had ties to ALEC since its early days.
- Since the Standing Rock Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, ALEC has played a key role in the escalated attack on protestors’ rights, pushing the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act,” which imposes stiff penalties on individuals and organizations that support protests. Marathon Petroleum, Koch-funded groups, and other oil and gas companies and industry groups spearheaded the effort to get ALEC to adopt the model legislation. Laws based on ALEC’s model and aimed at deterring individuals with much stiffer penalties have been enacted in 19 states.The model bill also establishes “vicarious liability” for organizations supporting protesters. (For more information see ICNL’s protest bill tracker and Greenpeace USA’s forthcoming “Dollars vs. Democracy” report).
- ALEC’s “Environmental Corrupt Organizations – Preventative Legislation and Neutralization (ECO-PLAN) Act” is another model bill that criminalizes environmental activism and gives the government the power to defund and shut down alleged “eco-terrorist” activities without defining “animal and ecological terrorism,” potentially giving law enforcement broad discretion to silence critics of corporate business practices that damage the environment.
A healthy democracy is essential to a healthy environment. Yet ALEC policies have made it more difficult to elect and support the kind of bold legislative leadership we need to steer away from the climate crisis and accelerate the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.
Since its early days, ALEC has opposed popular efforts to advance democracy and political inclusion. An early example is the workshop ALEC sponsored in 1978, where state legislators were instructed how to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given the District of Columbia full voting representation in Congress. Decades later, the movement to demand equality and statehood for DC has revived and become stronger than ever.
Since then, ALEC has undermined democracy and voting rights in a variety of other ways including pushing voter ID requirements and other laws that make it harder for many people to vote or otherwise participate in the promise of American democracy.
ALEC members led voter suppression efforts in key 2020 battleground states. In 2021, after ALEC CEO, Lisa Nelson, claimed that ALEC doesn’t work on voter-related issues, a recording was released of Nelson assuring a conservative audience that ALEC would be coodinating election policy work in key states with the Honest Elections Project, a dark-money group that is part of a network pushing voting restrictions.
ALEC has opposed many of the reforms contained in the Freedom to Vote Act, such as public financing of elections, an important way to weaken the overbearing influence of corporations and dark money groups.
Whether it’s shielding corporations from liability for childhood lead poisoning, eliminating the minimum wage, killing network neutrality, abolishing collective bargaining for public employees, taking away pension benefits, supporting mass incarceration, or pushing the privatization of public services and infrastructure, including schools, prisons, health care programs, and social security – the policies that ALEC has pushed for decades through state legislatures across the country has benefited its corporate sponsors while corroding public faith in government and our ability to solve the nation’s most pressing problems, including climate change.
50 years of harm is enough. It’s time to shut ALEC down.