Snyder-Hall: Corporate-crafted bills no good for Delaware


Claire Snyder-Hall is the executive director of Common Cause Delaware.

In politics, a lot goes on behind the scenes that remains unnoticed, but public exposure can work wonders. For example, a bill that would have allowed corporations to participate in municipal elections in Seaford, the largest city in Sussex County, was sailing through the Delaware General Assembly this past spring, until it made national headlines, sparking public outcry. Though the bill did not pass this year, it raised serious questions about the influence of corporations on our state politics. Many Delawareans were taken aback by the idea of artificial entities participating directly in our elections.

But the failure of the corporate voting rights bill gives us the opportunity to move our focus to a more indirect form of corporate influence that has a far greater impact on our legislators: the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Many people probably think that U.S. politics have moved away from backroom deals cut in darkened rooms, but ALEC is proof that that is not the case. The council is a powerful group, billed as a nonprofit, that brings state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists together to collaborate in secret on model legislation.

Its member corporations pay large sums of money to gain direct access to state lawmakers, who are wined and dined at high-end venues and provided with lobbyist-written “model bills” that advance corporate agendas. These ALEC-backed legislators then rush those bills through their statehouses and churning out laws that enrich corporations — and often hurt the rest of us. This makes state legislators look productive, while also advancing the interests of big corporations and right-wing extremists, like the Koch brothers.

Every year, lawmakers across the country introduce thousands of bills plotted and written by corporations and industry groups. A 2019 investigation by USA Today, The Arizona Republic and The Center for Public Integrity found that “10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide (from 2011-19), and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.”

It is no coincidence that the same bills keep popping up in states all over the country. Indeed, many of the key issues that have become hot topics in statehouses from California to Connecticut were promulgated by the American Legislative Exchange Council. As described by Wisconsin Reps. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, and Francesca Hong, D-Madison, “Stand your ground laws? ALEC. Voter ID measures? ALEC. Bills limiting what history can be taught in schools? ALEC.” But wait, there’s more. Anti-abortion bills? ALEC. Anti-trans bills? ALEC. Attempts to rewrite the Constitution? That’s all ALEC.

Though the group keeps its well-heeled funders and corporate supporters a secret, reporting by The Center for Media and Democracy has revealed that wealthy right-wing mega-donors like The Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, DonorsTrust, The Searle Freedom Trust and the Charles Koch Foundation are the top funders of ALEC. Its many corporate members include UPS, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Koch Industries and State Farm, as well as FreedomWorks, one of the original backers of the Tea Party movement that emerged in 2010.

Though largely hidden from view, the group is pulling strings all over the country, in all 50 states, including right here in Delaware. While no evidence has been uncovered that ALEC crafted Seaford’s corporate voting bill, several legislators who voted for the bill are listed as members and its sponsor previously served as the organization’s chair for Delaware.

ALEC started pushing its hidden agenda in 1973 and went largely unnoticed for years. Then, in 2012, it was exposed by investigative journalists writing for The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek. They shined a light on its backroom dealings, and the subsequent public outrage prompted many corporations to cut ties.

We must continue to expose the machinations of the ALEC cabal because public scrutiny has caused many corporations to defect from it over the past few years. Those defectors include AstraZeneca and Nestle, two of the biggest companies headquartered in Delaware; McDonald’s, the fast food chain with the most locations in Delaware; and Amazon, which now has eight facilities planned or opened in the First State. Many others have also distanced themselves, like Lowe’s, Verizon and Walmart.

ALEC celebrated its 50th birthday this year, and it shows no sign of stopping. While it will no doubt keep pushing its toxic agenda behind closed doors, public exposure can play a positive role in persuading corporate members to break away.

It seems that Louis Brandeis was correct: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

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