In many instances, the bills are identical to model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-business, free-market group whose members include legislators as well as private companies, which pay thousands of dollars to have a seat at the table.
ALEC, as the group is known, has seen seven of its bills passed by the Virginia General Assembly, including measures on education, taxes and health care, according to the study, conducted by the liberal group ProgressVA. One of the resulting laws laid the groundwork for Virginia’s legal challenge of the federal health-care law passed in 2010.
And for the coming legislative session, the first bill introduced in the Senate is an ALEC bill that changes voter requirements — forcing registered voters to cast provisional ballots if they cannot provide identification.
Critics say the group’s low profile cloaks an ambitious agenda driven by corporate interests.
“The American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive organization funded by big corporations, has been writing bills that Virginia legislators are passing off as their own work on everything from education to health care to voting rights,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA.
Interest groups of all stripes seek to shape legislation, and many of the most influential have a strong hand in writing bills brought before state legislatures and Congress. But ALEC is notable for the range of issues on which it helps craft legislation and for the influence it has accrued, aided by a run of GOP electoral victories in Virginia and by the presence of a former ALEC chairman in the House speaker’s chair.
ALEC officials did not respond to messages seeking comment. In a statement responding to another study this summer, ALEC said it is a nonpartisan group with members from legislatures, nonprofit organizations and the corporate world that promotes economic growth, fiscal responsibility and individual liberty.
At least 115 current or former members of the Virginia General Assembly have ties to ALEC, either for sponsoring bills, attending conferences or paying membership dues, according to the Progress VA study.
The state has spent $232,000 during the past decade to send legislators, primarily members of the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, to ALEC conferences and meetings.
By 2009, the year House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) served as ALEC’s national chairman, nearly 60 percent of taxpayer-funded trips in the House were to ALEC conferences or meetings, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics. In recent years, as the state began cutting back on costs because of the economy, ALEC began picking up the tab.