Democratic lawmakers attend ALEC meeting to see what might be on the Legislature’s agenda

By: - August 2, 2023 5:45 am

Reps. Francesca Hong, left, and Kristina Shelton take a selfie in front of an ALEC meeting sign in Orlando. (Shelton Twitter post)

Wisconsin State Reps. Francesca Hong and Kristina Shelton aren’t exactly the typical lawmakers to belong to the American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC for short.

Hong, of Madison, and Shelton, of Green Bay, are staunch Democrats who have consistently voted against bills advancing the policies of the sort ALEC promotes. While the organization is legally nonpartisan and a tax-exempt nonprofit, it has become widely known as the birthplace of right-wing legislative proposals that find a home mainly with Republican state lawmakers around the country.

Last week, however, the two second-term Assembly members were in Orlando for ALEC’s annual meeting. It was Shelton’s second visit and Hong’s third. When they posted about their participation on social media, some followers wondered what they were doing in a crowd so ideologically at odds with their own political stances.

“I think it’s important to understand the agenda of the opposition,” Hong says. “And our current political reality requires us to know what the motivation is of our colleagues and where they’re getting model legislation from [along with] talking points, candidate training. These are all things that are available at ALEC.”

“It gives us an understanding of what’s to come,” adds Shelton — in the form of future legislation that members of the Republican majority might introduce. “And it helps us prepare as Democrats, organizing our own legislation and messaging. There’s no better way to prepare than to hear it directly from the folks on the other side.”

ALEC members include state lawmakers, most of them Republican and conservative, and its funding comes from foundations, trade groups and some corporations, according to research from the Center for Media and Democracy. The conservative policy incubator marked its 50th anniversary this year. 

In Wisconsin, ALEC has been in the spotlight since 2011 with the exposure of the organization’s influence on legislation enacted by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-majority Legislature. That started with Act 10, the law that stripped virtually all collective bargaining rights from most public employees.

Progressive tradition

Hong and Shelton view themselves as carrying on a tradition among progressive Wisconsin lawmakers in joining ALEC, attending its events and going back home to report what they see and hear. Their predecessors are former state Rep. Mark Pocan, now a member of Congress, and former state Rep. Chris Taylor, now an appeals court judge.

Their name tags for the ALEC event simply identify them as Wisconsin state representatives, and Hong and Shelton say they don’t go out of their way to out themselves as Democrats — but they aren’t undercover, either. 

Shelton tweeted from the keynote speech given by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and posted on Facebook about attending the three-day meeting. Both she and Hong are certain that ALEC staffers are watching them closely.

Hong says Wisconsin GOP lawmakers in attendance kept their distance last week. Those from other states are much more forthcoming, they’ve found. 

“It’s so fascinating, because people talk to us like we’re Republicans — they just share everything with you,” Shelton says. “And so you really can get some very interesting information from people directly about what they’re thinking and what they’re working on.”

As paying ALEC members (dues are $200 a year; conference fees are $750), they can’t be excluded on ideological grounds because of the group’s nonpartisan legal status,  says Hong, who adds she has asked ALEC for its guest list “multiple times” but never received it.

Membership includes the opportunity to join two subject-matter task forces. Hong chose energy and environment as well as taxation and federalism. Shelton’s two were health and human development and education and workforce. Those sessions are where the details of proposed model legislation from the organization are outlined. They are also where the role of big business is most evident in helping to shape the organization’s proposals.

Lawmakers vote on proposals, but corporate members do as well, Hong says, and the tallies show how different  “the votes for what the public wants [are from] what the private sector wants.”

Hong says that on the environment, a recurring theme was “really centered on weaponizing and blaming China … for negative environmental impacts.”

Privatizing education

On education, Shelton says, the organization has heavily promoted school privatization proposals, including education savings accounts and universal private school vouchers, such as were included in a  sweeping education bill in Arkansas, the LEARNS Act, enacted earlier this year.

“They’re no longer interested in sort of nibbling around the edges on school vouchers,” Shelton says. “They’re going all in — removing the income limits, moving to those education savings accounts, wildly expanding public investment for religious schools … [and] dismantling any sort of bureaucratic accountability measures.”

Hong says the education proposals have also been made with reference to the difficulties that employers have had filling job openings. 

“The framing of it didn’t come off as full, ‘We’re attacking public schools,’” Hong says. “This is how we’re going to get more workers is to essentially make schooling and education’s sole purpose is to be producing workers.”

On economic and social policy, a persistent talking point was “about making poor people rich, not rich people poor,” she adds, while government assistance is “dragging down the economy” and “morally wrong.”

“They’re really digging into that narrative and saying that growing government to help those people is going to be the end of time,” Hong says.

To be sure, ALEC is just one of many organizations, from the AFL-CIO to the Sierra Club, that pursue policy change, sometimes constructing model legislation for that purpose. The difference, Shelton says, is that the group’s agenda doesn’t appear to her to be about policy so much as about political power. 

“I think what’s different here is a sort of militant approach by those on the conservative right to not be as interested in actually solving the problems in the critical issues of working people,” she says, “but rather creating legislation to drive issues that they see as winning at the ballot box.”

Even so, a prevailing theme was diminishing the role of government and freeing corporations and business, the two Wisconsin Democrats say.

Thinking about the risks that have been raised by advances in artificial intelligence software, Shelton asked another meeting goer what government’s role should be as AI develops.

“The woman looked at me and said, ‘Government needs to get out of the way entirely and let companies and corporations have unfettered access to artificial intelligence so that they can have as much innovation as possible,’” Shelton says. 

“I paused, and I said, ‘Well, do you think there will be any harms?’ And she said, ‘No. The market will take care of itself.”

In another conversation, when Shelton asked what government’s role should be in the face of corporate wrongdoing, “this gentleman next to me said, ‘Well, we can sue them,’” she says.

Shelton says she left the meeting wondering why some participants, with their anti-government creed, chose to be lawmakers at all: “I always think, if you don’t believe in the role of good government, why are you here?”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.