How progressives are taking a page from ALEC’s playbook

Conservatives push agendas through a centralized state network; progressives are building one of their own.


Sixty percent of Western voters recently polled oppose the current movement to transfer federal lands to state control. Lawmakers have killed dozens of transfer-related bills brought up across the region in the last year. And yet, the movement continues to gain prominence in national discourse.

That’s partly because the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has put significant weight behind the campaign to transfer lands. The conservative policy group, funded by corporations like Koch Industries and coal giant Peabody Energy, creates model legislation that lawmakers in states like Idaho and Arizona pick up and tweak slightly to make their own. One reason ALEC is so effective is because it has created a tight-knit network around the country to move bills through state legislatures. The group serves as a central backbone to the movement by funding, writing, and pushing legislation at the state level. ALEC has been writing model bills for decades but started posting them on its website in 2013.

Nick Rathod is the executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, which is trying to create a centralized network for progressives at the state level.
State Innovation Exchange

Now, it seems, many progressives are using a similar tactic to fight back. They aren’t necessarily writing cookie-cutter bills, but they are dedicating more resources to form a centralized state-level network and accessible legislation library. The plan is for lawmakers to share tactics, successful bills, and expert resources in order to move the needle in their favor and rival ALEC’s conservative model bill mill.

“The lands-seizure movement has (awakened) people to the damage that can be done if there’s no attention being paid to what ALEC is doing,” says Matt Lee-Ashley, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress. “Being realistic, the ALEC model built on the right has been very effective. It’s appropriate that progressives are paying more attention to it, trying to figure out how to better organize to advance their agenda.”

ALEC started in the 1970s, when Democrats controlled most state legislatures and political clout of labor unions was on the rise. Conservative activist Paul Weyrich founded the group in 1973 to challenge that power.

The way it works now is: ALEC brings together its member politicians and corporations to draft model policies and white papers on a variety of topics, from “regulatory reform” to “environmental stewardship.” Many of these bills have fill-in-the-blank spaces for state names, which makes them easier to farm out. ALEC distributes the bills with help from groups like the State Policy Network, which connects and advises conservative and libertarian think tanks. Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-backed group, was founded in 2004 and now has two million grassroots activists. It pushes the agenda further by funding election and ad campaigns to mobilize Republican state lawmakers, who often use ALEC-backed legislation. It’s an effective system: ALEC writes model bills, state think tanks produce research that backs them up, and advocacy groups lobby for and fund the legislation.

It is difficult to track exactly where these bills come from; ALEC doesn’t release where its bills are ultimately used, and they did not respond to multiple calls for this story. Though state bills may share similar or even identical language as ALEC models, legislators who sponsor them may not always be aware of whether they came from the East Coast group. Utah Republican Rep. Steve Handy said although he has never used model bills himself, “ALEC legislation has come up in the past [in Utah].”

Washington Republican Rep. Shelly Short echoed this, saying that it wouldn’t surprise her if ALEC model legislation has been picked up in the bill drafting process in her state. “[ALEC] comes up with legislation,” she says. “They’re smart people.”

This creates a murky understanding of ALEC’s direct correspondence with state lawmakers, but the sheer volume of ALEC-related bills that pop up in legislatures every year provides some insight into how well its centralized approach works. The Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal watchdog organization founded in 2011 by former Department of Justice official Lisa Graves, periodically publishes reports that round up and compare state bills with ALEC model bills. According to a 2013 report, 77 environment bills about fracking, public lands, climate education and ag-gag laws, all modeled after ALEC legislation, were introduced in state legislatures. Sixteen of those were in Western states, and five of those 16 passed.

Liberal groups, on the other hand, have historically been more decentralized than the right, Lee-Ashley says. “The progressive movement is not particularly hierarchical, and not really dominated by a few corporate interests that are easily aligned,” he added.

The lack of centralization is why the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) was created in 2014. SiX’s goal is to build a centralized network to connect progressive legislators with each other and with researchers who can help craft and move legislation forward at the state level.

“We work on what we think is good public policy,” says SiX Executive Director Nick Rathod, “addressing climate change and fighting back against fracking, supporting civil rights and women’s rights. There never has been a strong enough entity that can compete with the infrastructure on the right.” Three state policy nonprofits merged to create the group: the Progressive States Network; the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE), which was created in 2012 specifically to oppose ALEC; and the Center for State Innovation. SiX’s advisory board includes groups like National Resources Defense Council, CAP and Economic Policy Institute. Its ultimate budget goal is $10 million; thus far, the group has raised about $2 million.  

SiX doesn’t itself write model legislation, but it has a library that currently holds 2,000 bills that have been successfully passed around the country. The public online library hosts legislation for many states at the county, municipal, school district and state levels, on topics ranging from reproductive health to gun control to energy policies. In Montana, there’s a sample bill to support efforts to preserve tribal languages, and in Alaska there’s an example of legislation to regulate power plant development.

In lieu of an open-source bills library and a centralized network, progressive groups have in the past worked in a more ad-hoc way to lobby lawmakers and share legislation ideas. For example, Food and Water Watch, a consumer rights group played a big role in the anti-fracking movement in Colorado by drafting sample policies for local citizens to take to their legislators. Another example is the Sierra Club, which has state chapter representatives call in weekly to share ideas.

Still, Rathod says, it’s a David and Goliath situation. Until SiX or another group centralizes the movement to push for more proactive legislation, ALEC’s well-oiled machine will continue to successfully move conservative bills through state legislatures faster than progressives can react. 

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

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