ALEC’s American Beauty Rose

I assume most PA readers are reasonably familiar with the American Legislative Exchange Council, an extremely successful conservative group (with heavy support from people like the Koch Brothers) that is based on the idea of getting lobbyists together with state legislators and sending out lobbyist-drafted “model legislation” that seems to get introduced all over the country and enacted wherever Republicans are in power.

I’ve been watching ALEC pretty closely for a couple of decades, but hadn’t really focused on its enduring relationship with one prominent Republican pol, as noted by TPM’s Brian Murphy:

[O]ne of the group’s most high profile alumni is Scott Walker. It’s possible that no American politician who holds office today has worked harder to successfully advance ALEC’s agenda than Walker. And no previous candidate for the White House has ever owed so much to ALEC at the outset of his campaign.

Walker’s longstanding association with the group dates back to his first days as a state legislator in the early 1990s. One of the very first high-profile bills Walker was associated with during his time as a state legislator was a 1998 tough-on-crime ‘truth in sentencing’ bill that caused Wisconsin’s prison population to balloon.

At the time, Walker claimed original authorship of the law. But it wasn’t really his bill; ALEC’s policy shop wrote it at the behest of two ALEC funders: the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, formerly called Wackenhut. Soon after Gov. Tommy Thompson signed it into law, Walker introduced a second piece of legislation to open the state’s soon-to-grow prison system up to the two private prison companies.

Yep, that’s how ALEC functions: legislators are encouraged to claim as their own “ideas” actually drafted by the paid functionaries of companies that will benefit from them.

Walker’s relationship with ALEC didn’t end when he left the state legislature. As Milwaukee’s county executive, for example, he tried to privatize security at the county jail by declaring a fiscal emergency and granting himself special authority to nullify union contracts. Who got the privatization contract? Wackenhut. An arbitrator later ruled Walker had acted illegally, costing the county nearly $500,000 in fees.

But none of this compares to what ALEC’s sponsors have gained since Scott Walker was elected Wisconsin’s governor in 2010. Almost all of the accomplishments Walker lists in his stump speech originated as ALEC model bills. But Walker hasn’t just supported ALEC initiatives; he’s used the ready-made, heat-and-eat nature of ALEC’s model legislation to shortcut the ordinary lawmaking process in the state capital. Just as he did as a county executive, Walker’s governorship has featured unusual legislative maneuvers and a reliance on emergency special sessions to speed passage of ALEC-crafted bills. In Walker’s Wisconsin, sneak attacks are now the norm.

As Murphy notes, Walker’s taste for legislative blitzkriegs meshed nicely with ALEC’s supply of right-wing legislative material, which in many cases he nestled into large and complicated budget documents:

[In 2011, Walker’s first year as governor] the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, an in-house state agency that provides analysis to lawmakers, flagged nine items in Walker’s very first piece of legislation – his ‘Budget Repair’ bill – that were ‘non-fiscal.’ Most of these ideas originated as ALEC model legislation, as were many of the fiscal items, too.

The most high-profile and divisive of these, of course, was one Walker had never mentioned on the campaign trail: eliminating the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits. Union busting has long been an ALEC priority, but so were other policy changes overlooked in Walker’s first budget: tort reforms, limits on jury punitive damages, regulatory compliance changes, limits on product liability awards, restrictions on expert court testimony, changes to automotive titles, giveaways to payday lenders, and changes to the way the state calculated the economic downside of the privatization of public services. None of these would seem to be directly tied to a near-term budget shortfall, but each reflected a piece of ALEC model legislation. (I’ve only named a few – the longer list is here.) The vast majority of these issues had not been raised during Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor. But as ALEC-backed items, they became a top priority in Walker’s office.

Murphy keeps going and documents ALEC’s influence on Walker up to and including his presidential campaign. You should read it all. Buf suffice it to say that if Scott Walker sometimes seems like a master machiavellian pol and sometimes like a puppet for larger, privileged forces, you may say that thanks to ALEC he’s both.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.