In a state dominated by Democrats, it took a coalition of the left and the right in the recent General Assembly session to pass a parole credit bill supported by the controversial conservative corporate lobbying organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The bill was sponsored in the House by Del. Michael J. Hough (R-Dist. 3) of Brunswick, co-chairman of the state chapter of ALEC.
“Just look at our experience in Maryland,” Hough said. “The things we have passed in Maryland have had broad bipartisan support. We were able to have the [American Civil Liberties Union] and ALEC sitting together in support of this.”
The bill, the Earned Compliance Credit and Reinvestment Act of 2012, allows for reduced parole for those who comply with the conditions of their parole, including making restitution payments and meeting regularly with their parole officers.
But such bills no longer will be a part of ALEC’s future, according to the organization. It announced last week it no longer would take a stance on public safety, voter rights and social issues because of national controversy about legislation it supports in a number of states.
“While we recognize there are other critical, noneconomic issues that are vitally important to millions of Americans, we believe we must concentrate on initiatives that spur competitiveness and innovation and put more Americans back to work,” said David Frizzell, national chairman of ALEC.
In recent weeks, companies such as Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., United Parcel Service and Intuit, among others, have withdrawn sponsorship of ALEC following contentious debate about a number of measures supported by the organization.
The most egregious issue surrounded the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. That state’s ALEC-supported Stand Your Ground law was cited as a reason why the police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime after the shooting. Zimmerman has sinced been charged with second-degree murder for Martin’s killing.
“We are refocusing our commitment to free-market, limited government and pro-growth principles, and have made changes internally to reflect this renewed focus,” Frizzell said in an emailed statement.
For nearly 40 years, ALEC operated in the shadows, with corporations helping the organization write bills to limit worker rights, loosen environmental regulations and cut taxes on businesses, said Brendan Fischer, a law fellow with the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes the website ALECExposed.org.
Throughout the years, other conservative organizations, such as the National Rifle Association, have worked with ALEC, and the model bills are sent to ALEC members in legislatures across the country.
In some states, the ALEC bills are submitted and passed without any changes in the wording. The exact number of ALEC model bills filed in Maryland was unknown, Hough said. However, two of his bills, including the parole reform measure, were supported by ALEC and based on the organization's philosophy, he said. Like other conservative bills, however, they never made it out of committee, Hough said.
Although ALEC is highly influential in many Southern states, in Maryland it is not, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.
“Those legislatures have all been taken over by the Republican Party and dominated by conservatives and tea party elements,” he said of states where ALEC has the strongest influence. “Maryland is a blue state, and most of the Republicans in Maryland are moderate in nature and those that are more to the right than others, they’ll get their bills from ALEC and put them in. But unless it makes sense to the majority of members who are of a progressive or moderate bent, they’re not getting out of committee.”
The parole reform bill was the exception, he said.
“That was a good bill. I consider it a very progressive bill,” Miller said. “I didn’t even know ALEC supported that bill.”
A public safety past
In the 1980s and ’90s, ALEC’s corporate members included private prison contractors. Legislators who were ALEC members helped introduce bills that privatized many prisons across the country.
So-called “tough on crime” laws followed. They made more offenses punishable by prison time and lengthened sentences, thereby making private prison businesses even more profitable, Fischer said.
The shift toward more evidence-based practices in public safety, such as Maryland’s Earned Compliance Credit and Reinvestment Act of 2012, was “partially a PR move” to make up for the model prison privatization bills that “have had such a negative impact on communities,” Fischer said.
The decision by ALEC to no longer take positions on public safety and other noneconomic issues also is a public relations move, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a grass-roots organization that advocates for issues important to blacks and that has been credited with successfully lobbying corporations to withdraw support of ALEC.
"ALEC has spent years promoting voter-suppression laws, kill-at-will bills and other policies that hurt black and other marginalized communities,” Robinson said. “To simply say they are stopping noneconomic work doesn't guarantee that ALEC will not continue to push laws that endanger African-Americans and trample our voting rights.”
Much of ALEC’s agenda is anti-union, opposed to minimum wage laws, and supports tort reform so corporations will not be accountable when people are killed or injured by their products or work practices, Fischer said.
When ALEC operated behind the scenes, corporations used the organization to push legislation they wanted without being tied to it directly, Fischer said.
But the recent controversies, involving ALEC’s support of the gun laws and voter-suppression efforts, have cast a light on the organization and the corporations behind it, Fischer said.
“Corporations spend a lot of time building their brand and don’t want their brand attached to such a reactionary organization,” Fischer said.
But Hough said other organizations, including labor and environmental groups, also offer model bills for legislators nationally.
To an extent that is true, Fischer said, but the corporate funding allows ALEC to operate on a much larger scale.
“There’s really nothing like it on the left,” Fischer said. “Some groups introduce model legislation, but they don’t have resources to take legislators from across the country to meetings at resorts, provide them with meals and spend time with them and call it scholarships. [ALEC] is layering influence on top of influence.”
Hough points to the Earned Compliance Credit and Reinvestment Act as a way the organization crosses partisan lines to appeal to both sides of the political aisle.
“ALEC is a conservative organization, but it’s a nonpartisan organization,” Hough said.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Of the 21 Maryland delegates and senators listed as members of ALEC, all are Republicans. Several delegates who are members of ALEC referred questions on the organization to Hough. Nationally, 103 of the 104 legislators in leadership positions are Republicans, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit investigative reporting organization based in Madison, Wis.
“In a Democrat state, a lot of times Democrats are afraid to support something that could be labeled soft on crime,” Hough said.
Conservatives, like himself, supported the parole reform because it could help the state save money and advocates for evidence-based solutions, he said.
Freeing up parole agents from their current caseloads also allows them to effectively supervise convicted criminals who are more likely to be recidivists, Hough said.
“We had 19 Republicans cross over and support that legislation, and if we hadn’t had that it wouldn’t have passed,” Hough said. “It was brought up on the floor, ALEC supported it, and that allowed those Republicans to come over and support it.”
Melissa Goemann, legislative director of the ACLU of Maryland, said her organization will make allies on issues it supports wherever it can find them.
“It’s just an area where we agree,” Goemann said of the Earned Compliance Credit and Reinvestment Act. “It happens. We’re happy to find partners with common ground on people’s rights.”
Jon Kuhl, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that works with state legislatures on policy issues, declined to comment about ALEC’s influence on state legislatures nationwide.
But Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor who teaches about Maryland politics, said a conservative group such as ALEC is not going to have much success pushing its agenda in a state like Maryland.
“It would take a sea change in Maryland to see that kind of legislation move forward, no matter how influential that group might be nationally,” Eberly said. “In the end, it’s still the speaker [of the House Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis] and the president of the Senate who control what’s happening on the floor.”
Although the coalition of the left and right might have been successful with parole reform, it is unlikely to happen again, even on noncontroversial issues ALEC supports, Eberly said.
As ALEC becomes more infamous for union busting, it’s going to find liberals and Democrats less likely to sign on, he said.
“When you try to be an organization that does both middle of the road, but also very, very right wing or left wing, you run the risk of being defined by the most controversial elements of your organization,” he said.