About a month ago, state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, took up where her predecessor left off: She signed up to attend an American Legislative Exchange Council conference.
Better known as ALEC, the organization has known in recent years for authoring legislation subsequently pushed by conservative state legislators around the country. Before U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan was elected to Congress, he began investigating and attending ALEC conferences while serving a state representative for Madison.
“I had a very good sense after two days of what they were all about,” said Taylor, who attended two of three days at the ALEC 40th anniversary conference in Chicago Wednesday and Thursday. “I don’t know if I could have taken another day.”
To the average voter, ALEC meant nothing until Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2010. That’s when people started to realize ALEC was more than just another non-profit, political group holding conferences around the country.
It soon became clear that similar bills were being pitched and passed in Republican-controlled legislative houses across the country. ALEC, with its process for developing so-called model legislation, was the source.
“My takeaway after spending two days at a conference is ALEC is a well-oiled machine," Taylor said Friday on her way back from the conference. "Putting the amount of money it has aside, the coordination and the infrastructure this group has in place is incredible. I was both fascinated and horrified by it.”
She said the conference was comprised of task force and subcommittee meetings. The subcommittee meetings, held on a variety of topics including education and tort reform, were co-chaired by a lawmaker and a corporate representative, Taylor said, and all committee members would discuss and then vote on model legislation.
“In my observation, it was the corporations and the right-wing think tanks driving the agendas," Taylor said. "Corporations have as big a say as the legislators in the model legislation that is adopted (and then sent to state legislatures). It’s an incredible infrastructure. We have nothing like this on the left.”
While Taylor was the only Democratic Wisconsin lawmaker at the ALEC conference, she saw several of her colleagues from across the aisle in Chicago. Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa; Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater; Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva; Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette; Rep. Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, were all in attendance.
Former Republican Assembly Speaker and Gov. Tommy Thompson chief of staff Scott Jensen was also there. The former politician is now a lobbyist for the Alliance for School Choice.
In “My ALEC Diary,” a two-part account that Taylor compiled for The Progressive magazine, she wrote that after her first day she felt like she “was on another planet.”
“When a speaker said during a task force on education that ‘universities are not reformable from within...' I thought I was going to lose my mind,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she registered for the conference about a month ago but never received any of the additional information detailing the conference agenda from ALEC. She said she found it “interesting” she didn’t get any of the other materials or emails sent to others prior to arriving at the conference.
“They knew who I was,” she said. “They knew I wasn’t a conservative.”
Taylor said she expects to see more efforts by ALEC to push legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere that promotes voucher schools, digital schools (ALEC’s new name for what were formerly called virtual schools), efforts to get rid of the state income tax (mentioned by Walker earlier this year), and efforts to make unemployment insurance more difficult to obtain by unemployed workers.
Taylor said there was no mention of abortion, gay marriage or any other social issues.
“They wine and dine you and then make investments in your elections,” Taylor said. “They make it as easy as possible for lawmakers to pass their corporate agenda.”