RICHMOND — In recent years, Virginia legislators have proposed bills that would legalize the use of deadly force in defending your home, call for companies that hire illegal immigrants to be shut down and give businesses tax credits to fund private school tuition for needy students.
All of those bills — and more than 50 others — have been pushed by a conservative group that ghostwrites bills for legislators across the nation, according to a study set to be released in the coming days.
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.
Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield), one of two state co-chairmen of ALEC in Virginia, called the criticisms of ALEC and its corporate members buying legislation “absurd” and “silly.”
“There are some great ideas there — on the issues of being free enterprise, pro-business and limited government,” he said. “How do they want to generate ideas?”
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the interests advanced by ALEC often seem more in line with the organization’s national agenda. A bill about greenhouse emissions introduced last session seemed out of step with the commonwealth. “We have problems in Virginia, and we should try to come up with Virginia solutions,” Toscano said.
ALEC, founded almost four decades ago by a father of the modern conservative movement, Paul Weyrich, includes about 2,000 state legislators as well as 300 companies, such as Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart, according to officials and documents.
Membership costs $7,000 for companies, $3,500 for nonprofit groups and $50 for legislators, ALEC told The Washington Post last year. Fees make up the bulk of its $7 million annual budget, documents filed with the IRS show.
Several GOP legislators said recently that they became members of ALEC — a group where nearly every board member and state chairman is a Republican — because it is the conservative alternative to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But Meagan Dorsch, an NCSL spokeswoman, said her organization, which offers research and technical assistance for legislators and their staff, is bipartisan — the president alternates each year between a Republican and a Democrat, and each of its 12 standing committees have co-chairmen representing both major parties.
NCSL differs from ALEC in that only legislators and staffers are able to be members, and NCSL rarely writes model legislation.
The Center for Media and Democracy released a report, ALEC Exposed, in July, documenting more than 800 model bills pushed by ALEC and introduced in state legislatures across the nation. The center received copies of the bills from a whistleblower.
In 2009, 826 ALEC bills were introduced across the nation; 115 became law, according to ALEC’s legislative scorecard.
ProgressVA used information from that report to find more than 60 Virginia bills in a wide variety of areas, including labor, the environment, health care and federal relations. Virtually all were introduced by Republicans.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who has attended ALEC conferences, said every member of the House GOP caucus was a member of ALEC at one time. When lobbying legislators on a bill, he said, he mentions when a bill is supported by ALEC. “I say it because it’s a selling point,” he said.
The list of Virginia bills includes one championed by Howell for several years that would have helped protect a Fortune 500 company, Philadelphia-based Crown Cork & Seal, from asbestos lawsuits — one of the few bills Howell put his power behind.