State Politics Are Completely Broken

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Remember the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)? If you were a politically-aware progressive between about 2011 and 2013, you probably do. A spate of stories came out during that time, exposing ALEC as the force behind conservative bills in dozens of states, a powerful conduit for its corporate members to push favorable laws and deregulation across the country.

For a while, ALEC joined the Koch brothers—one of its funders—as a top target of progressive ire. And like so many stories of terrible shit that progressives have been unable to defeat, we don’t hear too much about it anymore.

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Though ALEC may have fallen out of the spotlight, a new investigation from the Center for Public Integrity, the Arizona Republic and USA Today reveals that their influence is as strong as ever. The outlets used an algorithm to look for similarities or identical language across thousands of bills in state legislatures, and found “at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation” in the past eight years, with many model bills coming from organizations like ALEC. More than 4,000 of those were pushed by industry groups for their own benefit.

One bill, the Asbestos Transparency Act, had nothing to do with transparency. Instead, it made the process of mesothelioma victims suing for compensation more onerous, requiring them to jump through the additional hoop of asking for money from an asbestos trust before they can sue the company at fault. The bill was written by ALEC, “has been introduced in at least 32 states since 2012,” and “became law in 12 states.” Not a bad success rate.

ALEC was among the organizations pushing model bills, but it wasn’t the only one. The Goldwater Institute, whose “aggressive lawyers strike fear in the hearts of the state’s public officials” according to a 2011 New York Times article, pushed laws including a program to establish school choice vouchers for disabled kids—which turned out to be a “Trojan horse” for later bills expanding school choice vouchers to all students. Another Goldwater-supported bill was Right to Try, passed in 41 states and eventually signed by President Trump. These laws allowed patients to try experimental, non-FDA approved treatments—which they could already do. Goldwater “could not produce” any patients who had been blocked from trying lifesaving treatments before the bill passed, according to the report.

And it’s not just bills that helped corporate interests. The report highlights a model bill designed to prevent U.S. judges from ruling based on foreign law, intended to prevent sharia law from being enforced in the U.S. Proponents were “unable to cite court cases where U.S. law has been supplanted by Sharia or some other doctrine,” and yet it was introduced 53 times in state legislatures in the last eight years.

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What’s most shocking about this is how complicit and/or stupid the state legislators are when it comes to these model bills. The state legislator who introduced the asbestos bill in Colorado said he relied on his “experts” to explain the bill, which he admitted he didn’t write. One of those experts was a “co-chairman of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force and is a paid consultant for the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.” Another legislator, former Michigan Republican state Rep. Joe Haveman, worked to protect an out-of-state company who donated to his campaigns from asbestos liability in Michigan. His explanation?

“It really had nothing to do with my passion for anything. They had to do this in all 50 states,” Haveman said. “Somebody targeted me, and I had to do it.”

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You didn’t have to do it, Joe!!!

Republicans have made state politics their battleground for years, and Democrats have struggled to catch up; the article notes that liberals’ attempts to set up ALEC-style organizations have failed because they haven’t been able to offer the same relationships between corporations and other interests and lawmakers. It turns out access is a two-way street, and state legislators want it too.

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Corruption is rife at the state level. Most states have part-time legislatures, where being an elected representative is just a side-gig to supplement their real job. Sometimes, they’re farmers or pizza guys; others own businesses that benefit from the legislation they vote for, or work at law firms representing clients who benefit. One example that has stuck in my brain since I heard about it in 2016: Jennifer McClellan, a member of the Virginia State Senate, is also an assistant general counsel at Verizon Communications, “focusing on state regulatory matters for several states.” What the fuck?

It’s no surprise, then, when you have lawmakers whose time is limited, who have significant interests outside their job, and who simply aren’t fully dedicated to being a legislator, that when a pre-written bill comes along about a subject they aren’t particularly invested in, they might not question the source. Combine that with the dominance of Republicans who already support corporate interests, and of Republicans in state legislatures overall—the GOP controls 61 chambers to the Democrats’ 37—and you have a recipe for corporate lawmaking.

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State politics is corrupt and broken, and it’s dominated by Republicans. This is not a coincidence.

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About the author

Libby Watson

Splinter politics writer. libby.watson@splinternews.com