Scott Fitzgerald presser file photo
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald speaks to media during a press conference in the Senate parlor at the state Capitol in Madison on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011. M.P. King – State Journal archives

All the fuss this week over ALEC, a right-wing organization said to be the mastermind behind a nationwide wave of conservative proposals and laws, inspired me to look into whether the group has anything to do with a spate of recent health legislation from Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers.

My first step was to consult an online "study guide" about the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council written by UW-Madison history professor William Cronon.  The state GOP has filed an open records request seeking access to Cronon's e-mails, and I was curious to see what they were upset about.

A bunch of links and some digging later, I tracked down ALEC's The State Legislators Guide to Repealing ObamaCare. (NOTE: The original link I provided to this guide no longer works. Here is another. Scroll down and hit "Repealing Obamacare." We'll see if this link lasts.) It looks like our governor and Republican legislators could indeed be following this handy manual. Several health bills the Republicans have proposed and passed this year, or are about to propose (and probably pass, given their majority,) mirror ALEC's "model legislation."

But so what, asks Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, when I call him about my discovery. Fitzgerald says he has been a proud member of ALEC since he first became a legislator in 1994, and is currently the Wisconsin State Chairman. State lawmakers have always turned to such national organizations for help brainstorming ideas and crafting legislation, Fitzgerald says. "These groups are about exchanging ideas between different state legislators from around the country to be sure we're not isolating ourselves in Wisconsin," he tells me.

ALEC claims 2,500 legislative members, a third of all state lawmakers in the country. "It's very well run, probably a little bit conservative, but many Democrats are members, too," Fitzgerald says. "It's a great organization."

What's so great about it? "First and foremost, because a lot of the committees crank out what I would consider boilerplate legislation, stuff that's sweeping the nation," he says. "Obviously legislators do this all the time, pirate bills from one state that they think is a good idea into another state."

Democrats also get ideas and inspiration and copycat legislation from such groups. But some people nervous about ALEC claim there is a difference. Cronon's blog post "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere" made a splash not so much because it exposes the truth about how bills we assumed were homegrown are sometimes cookie-cutter products of groups with an agenda, but because of his scholarly arguments that the corporate and wealthy interests behind ALEC (which others note include the billionaire Koch brothers) are far more organized, coordinated, and stealthy than anything we've seen before in this country.

It's a claim those critical of the power of "union thugs" may dispute, but one ALEC itself seems proud of: since its founding 35 years ago, according to the Legislators' Guide, ALEC has "amassed an unmatched record of achieving groundbreaking changes in public policy." An ALEC membership brochure I found online claims that in each legislative cycle, members in 50 states introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and 17% of these bills are enacted into law.

Many of those helping to craft this legislation are from the private sector. The brochure promises its membership from the private sector, which includes business leaders, industry executives, and others wealthy enough to pay annual dues that can reach thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars a year, "an unparalleled opportunity to have its voice heard, and its perspective appreciated, by the legislative members."

Take my beat: health. What this means is that dues-paying executives from big drug and for-profit insurance corporations, for example, can attend ALEC events with legislators, schmoozing with them over drinks and sitting at the table with them writing legislation. I can't tell you exactly who these influential people are, though, because ALEC's membership is secret.

The way ALEC operates, according to Fitzgerald and the material I found, is that nine different task forces, each made up of legislators, policy experts, and private sector folks who pay $2,500 to $5,000 on top of regular dues to belong to a task force, knock out bills that will be presented to a full committee and then to all members at summits and various conferences. State legislators take the model bills home, where they often make whatever alterations or changes they feel necessary to win passage.

If state legislators can't attend the meetings, they have another option: they can simply log onto the ALEC website, where according to the brochure there is "more than 700 pieces of model legislation that can be easily downloaded."

These days, a lot of it is health-related. ALEC, a strong believer in state's rights, federalism, and the free-market, is fighting federal health care reform tooth and nail. (It also opposes various state efforts to crack down on the health insurance industry and expand coverage.) Since 2005, 38 states have passed legislation crafted by its Health and Human Services Task Force, according to the ALEC guide. Wisconsin promises to soon be one of the star performers. "There have been boilerplate bills that have similar characteristics to what has been passed here in Wisconsin," Fitzgerald says.

In December, he says, he and 20 to 30 other Wisconsin GOP lawmakers attended ALEC's national meeting Washington D.C., where a key topic of study and conversation was federal health care reform. The "State Legislators' Guide to Repealing Obamacare" was handed out at this meeting, and its model legislation discussed.  "A good example of that is a bill Joe Leibham is working on right now," Fitzgerald says.

Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, and Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, introduced the bill Fitzgerald is talking about on Thursday. The "Health Care Freedom Amendment" would change the Wisconsin constitution to prohibit the government from forcing anyone to participate in any public or private health care or insurance program. The amendment is meant to block the implementation of federal health care reform.

The "State Legislators' Guide to Repealing Obamacare"  urges the passage of "freedom laws" exactly like this, which ALEC has been pushing for a while. A flood of similar bills was introduced in 42 states in 2010, according to the manual, which provides legislators with talking points, data and research supporting such legislation.  "Introduce ALEC's Freedom of Choice in HealthCare Act, the primary legislative vehicle for state pushback of the individual mandate and Canadian-style, single-payer health care," the guide says.

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Several other GOP health proposals quickly coasting through the legislative process in the Capitol also show up in the guide.

Among the very first bills to land on Gov. Walker's desk in January, just a few weeks after he took office, was a tort reform bill that limits medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits, and a bill that provides tax breaks for people and businesses with health savings accounts, or HSA's.

On page 22 of the ALEC guide is a list of "model legislation" that includes similar bills: the "Affordable Health Insurance Act" and the "Comprehensive Medical Liability Reform Act."

Also included in ALEC's list of model legislation are proposals aiming to undo the power of health mandates, which the guide complains are "often steamrolled into existence by politically active interest groups."

Republicans have proposed a pair of bills  that would allow insurance policies in Wisconsin to ingore state mandates requiring coverage for a broad variety of medical treatments and conditions, including autism, cochlear implants and mental health problems. One of these bills would allow out-of-state health insurers to offer plans in Wisconsin that do not conform to the state's mandates.

This legislation, dubbed "Health Choices and Opportunities" by authors Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, Sen. is similar to what the ALEC guide calls the "Health Care Choice Act for States," which allows people to purchase health insurance across state lines. In 2010, according to the guide, 19 states introduced such legislation, and Wyoming enacted it.

The ALEC guide suggests around 10 other model health bills. I'll let you know if any of them start popping up in Wisconsin, too.