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Friday evening about 250 people gathered at the Ethical Society of St. Louis to hear Bob Edgar, President of Common Cause, and a panel of local political activists discuss the role that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is playing in our national and state politics. The program, sponsored by the Missouri Progressive Action Group (MOPAG) and the Ethical Society and moderated by KWMU’s Don Marsh, consisted of a general presentation by Mr. Edgar, followed by presentations from a panel consisting of:

Denise Lieberman, Senior Attorney, Advancement Project;

Chris Gunther, President Missouri Naional Education Association;

Byron Clemons, Regional VP, Amrican Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO;

John Hickey, Executive Director, Sierra Club Missouri Chapter;

David Cook, President, Local 655 United Food and Commercial workers.

Mr. Edgar’s presentation was filmed by Progress Missouri and video (3 prts.) can be viewed by following the links below:

Bob Edgar of Common Cause on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Part 1.wmv

Bob Edgar of Common Cause on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Part 2.wmv

Bob Edgar of Common Cause on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Part 3.wmv  


Bob Edgar established the theme of the presentation, which was the pernicious influence of corporate money on the American political system. He noted that, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United Decision, we are increasingly moving towards a plutocratic system of government to the detriment of our democracy. ALEC is one of the important mechanisms for furthering this evolution. Simply-put, it is a corporate-funded organization which brings corporations and state legislators(mostly, but not entirely, Republicans) together to write model legislation that favors corporate goals. (See this Progress Missouri resource for more information on ALEC.)

Edgar emphasized the fact that ALEC identifies itself as a charity for IRS purposes although, based on a cache of over 4,000 documents that Common Cause has obtained, their activities are, by almost any definition, lobbying. However, by claiming 501(c)(3) charitable status, corporations that contribute to ALEC are able to write-off their donations on their taxes. Edgar and his wife have filed a legal suit to force the IRS to investigate ALEC’s right to claim charitable status. Details, including a whistleblower letter from Common Cause to the IRS and other information about money in today’s politics are available on the Common Cause Website.

Memorable Quote: Edgar quoted his wife, a former operating room nurse, on the Citizens United decision which implies that corporations count the same as people in terms of privileged speech “… I’ll believe that coporations are people when they get colonoscopies.”

Panelists: The five panelists brought the impact of ALEC home to Missouri. They talked about what ALEC, through [the actions of ALEC-afiliated state legislators], has been trying to do to Missourians in the areas of vote suppression, education, the environment, and union busting.

Denice Lieberman talked about the ALEC inspired laws that are intended to suppress voting rights for certain constituencies such as African-Americans, young voters, and poorer elderly, who all tend to vote Democratic in large numbers. In Missouri one such bill is HB 2109, put forward by GOP Rep. Shane Schoeller (who is, incidentally, a Republican candidate for Secretary of State – the office responsible for oversight of state elections) which, in the words of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer, was “horrendous for a variety of reasons.” Schoeller, who says his constituents are worried about voter fraud, was unable to point to even one example of such fraud. Lieberman’s Advancement Project was able to squelch a ballot initiative aimed at amending the state constitution to restrict voting rights, which was also advanced by Schoeller, because, after bring suit, they were able to convince a judge that the language of the summary was patently dishonest. (Video of Leiberman’s presentation)

Chris Gunther had a big assignment detailing the numerous attacks on public education that have been launched in Missouri. She explained that one of ALEC’s ideological goals is to privatize public eduction and eliminate teacher’s unions; hence the numerous attacks on teachers and public schools that we witnessed this year, most of them emanating from ALEC affiliated legislators (More on ALEC and public education here). Attacks have ranged from efforts to widen the role of charters, allow “non-profits” to sponsor charters, eliminate teacher tenure, and introduce merit pay based on standardized test results. These proposals serve ideological, not educational ends since there is, as Gunther noted, large bodies of research that shows that they do not work to improve education. (Video of Gunther’s presentation.)

Byron Clemons also spoke to the efforts of ALEC inspired legislators to undermine public schools in Missouri (some names, Jane Cunningham, for example, evoked hisses from the audience). He also widened the scope to include Rex Sinquefield, who works hand-in-hand with those inspired by ALEC to gut our public educational system in the name of “reform.” He noted that Sinquefiled had tried to achieve some of the same goals in other cities such as Chicago, but settled to do his mischief in Missouri where he must have been gratified to find that he could buy “a whole bunch of Missouri legislators” for the price of one Chicago alderman. (Video of Clemens presenation.)

John Hickey drilled down into one particular piece of anti-environmental legislation, HCR 49,  in order to look at the type of strategies that are being put into play.  HCR 49 is simply a non-binding resolution that, according to the official summary, “calls on Congress to disapprove the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards regulation and ensure that the EPA replaces it with a sensible regulation.” What’s such a big deal about a non-binding resolution, Hickey asked,  that it could inspire action on the part of ALEC and their proxies in a state legislature? The point of the resolution, however, becomes clearer, he explained when one considers the fact that sometime next week it is expected that that the U.S. Senate will vote on a resolution that would void the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and keep the EPA from ever re-issuing such safeguards.

And guess what endangered Democratic Senator might be influenced by such a ho
me-state resolution? If you say Claire McCaskill, you’d be right on the money. Remember that Missouri’s Ameren is one of the dirtiest coal-burning producers of electricity in the nation (high mercury emissions) – and the lesson we can take from Hickey’s analysis is that the big money men behind ALEC have thought it all through carefully and have already bought the pawns they need to carry out their strategies.

David Cook talked mostly about the prevalence of ALEC-written right-to-work laws that have been popping up with regularity in Missouri. He colorfully likened right-to-work to his right to join an industrial executive’s fancy, private club without paying dues. In essence right-to-work comes down to a question of fairness. Everyone reaps the benefits of the union; everybody should have to pay for it. It also has pragmatic aspects, since wages are universally driven downwards in right-to-work states – which is one of the reasons why corporations like ALEC find them so appealing, of course.

Cook also referred to the spate of corporations that have recently left ALEC after its began to receive public attention. He cautioned the audience against thinking that all of these organizations have renounced ALEC’s goals; he contended that they just want to avoid the bad PR that association with ALEC might currently bring them. (Video of Cook’s presentation.)

Edited slightly for clarity and links have been added to videos of panaelists’ presentations.