How big is ALEC’s footprint in Illinois?

A protester holds a sign Wednesday denouncing the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is holding its 40th annual meeting Aug. 7-9 at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. Photo by Tyler Stabile

A protester holds a sign Wednesday denouncing the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is holding its 40th annual meeting Aug. 7-9 at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. Photo by Tyler Stabile

If you haven’t heard about the American Legislative Exchange Council, that’s because ALEC, as it’s commonly called, prefers to work behind the scenes. But that has become increasingly difficult. In recent years, ALEC, a group that brings together corporations and legislators to draft model legislation, has come under fire for its role in several infamous pieces of legislation, including Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, and Arizona’s punitive SB1070 immigration bill.

Now ALEC is holding its 40th Annual Meeting in Chicago this week, and a group of protesters supported by the Chicago Teachers Union, among others, have promised not to let the group’s conference have a quiet day. Six protesters were already arrested during a Monday sit-in at the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton Hotel downtown, where the meeting is being held, and protests are planned for every day of the conference.

ALEC has become a key symbol of the continually blurring line between corporations and politics. The group has an agenda heavy on private prisons, education privatization and anti-union bills, several of which have been found to enrich the corporate sponsors that helped draft the legislation. And because most of the meetings between state legislators and corporations happen at conferences like the one taking place this week in Chicago, ALEC’s impact eludes the traditional paper trail of lobbying disclosures, according to Rey López-Calderón, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, an advocacy organization focused on civic change.,

Given that model legislation drafted by ALEC rarely has the group’s name stamped on it, how big has ALEC’s footprint in Illinois been? By virtue of it being a Blue State, Illinois is a little less likely to attract the interest of ALEC and its corporate clients, López-Calderón said.

But that doesn’t mean that ALEC hasn’t had a hand in any legislative changes in the state. In fact, López-Calderón said, one issue that constantly makes headlines has the hallmark of ALEC: education reform.

The Illinois Charter Quality Act, passed in 2011, expanded the authority to approve charter schools from school districts to an appointed state commission. On ALEC’s website, a similar bill is filed under “model legislation.” According to López-Calderón, ALEC helped fund the effort to pass the Illinois Charter Quality Act. After the act was signed into law, the state created the Illinois Charter School Commission, which was then given authority to approve charter school applications.

An ALEC spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

ALEC doesn’t publicly disclose its members, but López-Calderón named two Illinois legislators as key members of ALEC. One of them is Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard, who López-Calderón called one of the most active legislators in ALEC in the state. Another is Republican Rep. Renee Kosel, said López-Calderón. Neither of the legislators responded to requests for comment on their relationship with ALEC.

In addition, some Illinois-based companies contribute to ALEC. State Farm is a member of ALEC and also received the group’s 2011 Private Sector Member of the Year Award, according to Source Watch, a project by the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, which has closely followed ALEC through its ALEC Exposed project.

When questioned about its association with ALEC by the Center for Media and Democracy in 2012, State Farm reportedly said, “Our work with ALEC is limited to research projects for use by public officials considering matters that impact the affordability and accessibility of insurance."

López-Calderón warns that even if some of the more punitive legislation put forward by ALEC, like Arizona’s immigration bill, hasn’t come to Illinois, that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. “ALEC ends up being very active in states like Texas, who end up being pioneers for these laws,” López-Calderón said.

Following a rash of bad press and divestment campaigns last year, 10 companies dropped their associations with ALEC, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And last month, Sen. Dick Durbin announced that he would hold a hearing on Stand Your Grand laws and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s influence on the spread of those laws across the country.

López-Calderón sees hope in these kinds of moves, and the growing public pressure against ALEC. “People are starting to see that this is a major fight,” he said. “You can’t fight against racism and poverty unless you are fighting against the organizations that make those things possible.

Disclosure: Rey López-Calderón was a member of The Chicago Reporter’s Readers Board while Alysia Tate was publisher.

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