By Savannah Thieme
Progressive activists are providing a Chicago-style welcome this week for hundreds of state legislators who've converged on the Windy City to rub elbows with corporate lobbyists and enjoy the hospitality of some of America's richest companies at the 40th annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
As ALEC's legislators and their deep-pocketed friends meet in private to fashion a new set of "model" state laws, Common Cause and other groups are shining a light on ALEC's evasion of federal taxes, its campaign against voting rights and its efforts to put private profit ahead of the public interest in clean air, clean water and quality public schools.
On Wednesday evening, a Common Cause screening of Bill Moyers' film The United States of ALEC at the University Center in Chicago drew more than 100 people. Following the film, Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, led a panel discussion with speakers including Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change and Nick Surgey, director of research for the Center for Media and Democracy.
Robinson's group has been prominent in a lobbying campaign that has persuaded dozens of companies to end their ALEC membership. Surgey's exhaustive research at CMD and before that at Common Cause has helped document ALEC's attack on the public interest.
On Thursday, activists are rallying at noon outside the Palmer House Hilton to protest ALEC's advocacy of legislation that attacks workers' and voters' and its support for "Stand Your Ground" laws like the Florida statute that was central of the Trayvon Martin case.
Ufortunately, as in the past, it appears that journalists and activists alike will be barred from the ALEC meetings. Despite ALEC's promise to become more transparent, the group clearly does not want the public to know how its corporate members draft legislation, wine and dine legislators, and sign large checks (ALEC members call them "scholarships") to underwrite legislators' travel and hotel expenses.
"It's disgraceful for ALEC to use its tax-exempt status to act as a conduit for gifts to facilitate influence peddling that advances the lobbying agenda of special interests to the detriment of ordinary Americans. This is corruption," said Lisa Graves, executive director of CMD and alecexposed.org.
Common Cause has filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the IRS, accusing the group of violating the terms of its tax exempt status by engaging in lobbying. The submission includes thousands of documents including ALEC talking points, "issue alerts," and other materials used to create and lobby for passage of their model legislation. The complaint seeks an IRS order requiring ALEC and its members to pay back taxes and penalties; because the group is now tax exempt, its corporate members can deduct their ALEC dues and contributions on their corporate tax returns.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: More Democracy Reforms