TERRY GROSS, host:
We've been talking about what recently leaked documents reveal about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings together state lawmakers with representatives of large corporations to collaborate on writing model bills that can be introduced into state legislatures.
Joining is now is the national chairman of ALEC, Noble Ellington. He's a Republican member of the Louisiana State Legislature.
Earlier we heard from journalist John Nichols who described ALEC's agenda as advocating business-friendly legislation, including lower taxes, protections against lawsuits, limiting environmental regulations and privatizing prisons and schools.
Noble Ellington, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to describe in your words the goals of ALEC.
Mr. NOBLE ELLINGTON (National Chairman, ALEC): I think what we look at is limited government, Jeffersonian principles, free trade, those kinds of things. And it's to work with businesses to promote business growth and private sector growth so that we can help stimulate the economy.
GROSS: Can you give some examples of legislation that was introduced and passed recently in state legislatures that is based on model legislation drafted by ALEC members, corporations and legislators in cooperation together?
Mr. ELLINGTON: Well, they may start out in corporation together. The corporations and the ALEC members, they may start out together, but only, only legislative members approve model legislation, not the private sector advisory board. They don't approve the legislation; just the public sector members do that. And yes - and I'll give you Louisiana, this year, working with the Pew Foundation, we introduced some legislation working on prison reform, trying to stop recidivism and make the time that the prisoners have to serve, attempt to shorten that, for two reasons. One, for them, being the inmates; and the other being for the cost to the state.
GROSS: Why give corporations such a big say in drafting legislation?
Mr. ELLINGTON: Well, partly because they're one of the ones who will be affected by it. And you say a big say, but as I expressed to you earlier, and I think it needs to be made perfectly clear, that they have, they do not have the final say about model legislation. It is done with work with taskforces, which is both public and private sector working together. But before it ever becomes model legislation or ALEC policy, it has to go through the public sector board, not the private sector. So only the public sector had the final say as to whether or not something becomes model legislation.
GROSS: But the corporations on who are represented have a lot of input in writing the legislation, in drafting it.
Mr. ELLINGTON: Yes, they do. They have, they certainly have interest, because it's going to affect them, so do the tax so does the taxpaying public.
GROSS: But the taxpaying public isn't at the table.
Mr. ELLINGTON: Wait just a minute. Don't don't assume that.
Mr. ELLINGTON: I work for the taxpaying public. So don't assume that they're not, because they are. And we represent the public and we are the ones who decide. So the taxpaying public is represented there at the table because I'm there.
GROSS: I understand that, but you're there at the table with corporations. But at the table...
Mr. ELLINGTON: Can I interrupt you again?
Mr. ELLINGTON: It's not just corporations. I'm there, and members of ALEC is the Americans for Tax Reform, the National Taxpayers Union, National Federation of Independent Businesses - those are people that we represent as well and those are people who are members.
GROSS: But those are all pro-business, anti-tax groups. People not represented at the table include workers, union members, teachers, students...
Mr. ELLINGTON: No, ma'am. No, ma'am.
GROSS: Patients who are can't medical bills...
Mr. ELLINGTON: You are completely wrong.
GROSS: Uh-huh. I'm sorry?
Mr. ELLINGTON: I represent...
Mr. ELLINGTON: I, me, as an elected official, I represent unions. I represent teachers. And you're saying you want taxes raised? Is that what you're saying?
GROSS: I don't think I said I want taxes raised. I don't think I said anything about what I wanted.
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Mr. ELLINGTON: You said these are anti-tax, you know, these groups are anti-tax.
GROSS: I was just pointing out that Americans for Tax Reform is very, very opposed to taxes period. Just making, you know, just observing -yeah.
Mr. ELLINGTON: My constituents are opposed to taxes, period.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. ELLINGTON: Mine are.
GROSS: I guess what I'm saying - yeah.
Mr. ELLINGTON: And I represent those people, so I, you know, I'm a little bit taken offense when you say these people are represented. They elected me. They elected me six times...
Mr. ELLINGTON: ...just to represent them, and that's what I do.
GROSS: Now, you're saying that only the legislators vote on whether a model bill will be accepted. But John Nichols, the journalist who we were just talking to, who has read a lot of the documents that were leaked about ALEC, he said that corporations do have the power to basically veto, you know, model legislation.
Mr. ELLINGTON: They may can in the - when the bills are being discussed in the taskforce. But when it comes before the board, if it's going to pass, it has to pass by the public sector.
GROSS: But it's not going to get out of the taskforce unless the corporations sitting on that committee approve.
Mr. ELLINGTON: You're probably asking me something a little more technical than I am prepared to answer, but I would think that's right. But I do think that the public sector can get it out if they (unintelligible).
GROSS: Many documents from the ALEC archive, many ALEC papers that had previously not been made public have now been made public because they were leaked by someone and given to the Center for Media and Democracy, which has passed them on to journalists who have been trying to read them and analyze them. What impact is that having on ALEC?
Mr. ELLINGTON: Well, we started out - and I don't know if this is going to answer your question like you'd like to have answered, but we are probably enjoying some of our finest times. Some of the times that when I took over as chairman, and I'm certainly not taking credit for this, but we had, we've got over 2,000 members and just not very long ago we only had 1,800 legislative members. So ALEC is growing and enjoying one of its finer times.
GROSS: Does it trouble you that documents that had been private are now public? What impacts do you think that will have on your organization to be scrutinized by the press in a way that it never has before?
Mr. ELLINGTON: Ma'am, I don't think we have done anything at ALEC that -and I don't know, you know, exactly what's been leaked. I don't know what's out there. But I don't think we've done anything that we're ashamed of, so you know, I don't see it bothering us.
GROSS: My guest is Noble Ellington, the national chairman of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: We're talking about the group ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings together state lawmakers with representatives of major corporations to write model bills that can be introduced into state legislatures.
Earlier, we talked with journalist John Nichols, who has been analyzing recently leaked documents from the ALEC archive.
Let's get back to my interview with the national chairman of ALEC, Noble Ellington, a Republican member of the Louisiana state legislature.
How has having been introduced to and being able to create a relationship with the corporate representatives in ALEC been helpful to you in your career in the Louisiana state legislature?
Mr. ELLINGTON: Opportunity to visit with them as well and find out what some of the issues that they would like to see that they feel like is something that would enhance them. And I certainly don't dodge that issue. That would be part of something that could possibly enhance them. But in my mind, when we help, and we talk about corporations - or I say we. I try not to, but it appears that some out there think that they are the enemy. And I see them as friends. And I see them as the ones who are creating the jobs and there seem to be some out there who think government should be the ones creating the jobs. I see the corporations as creating the jobs, adding to the wealth of individuals out there who are working for them. And so I, you know, I think any time we can do something that - I do something for a corporation in Winnsboro and it creates 25 jobs, then I think I've done something good to help my community and on a larger scale to help my country.
GROSS: What about if you've helped cut back a public program and lost 25 jobs?
Mr. ELLINGTON: What if we had?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. 'Cause part of ALEC's goal, I think, is to...
Mr. ELLINGTON: Is less government?
GROSS: Is less government. Exactly.
Mr. ELLINGTON: There's no doubt about that. But if I did, hopefully down the road were going to be creating some jobs to take those, to take the place of those that we lost. I just don't see the role of government to be able to - and certainly I'm not saying that we don't need people working for government, but their primary goal shouldn't be to create jobs.
GROSS: Do you think the organization should be more transparent so that citizens know when bills are being drafted with input by corporations who stand to make profits from the legislation?
Mr. ELLINGTON: I think our model legislation, as it - when it comes before state legislatures, it is absolutely as transparent as it can get. While we may be discussing it, it may not be transparent, but before it's passed, legislators have to say we approve this model legislation. Not the corporations. They can't say. They don't have a vote. Legislators say. And then a state legislator can then introduce that model legislation in his state. It goes through the it is assigned to a committee. It goes through a committee. The public has input, the public has an opportunity to hear, they have an opportunity to talk to their legislators about the legislation, so I don't see how you can get much more transparent than that.
GROSS: But I was talking about transparency in the early process, during the drafting of the bill, when the corporations are involved in, when they do have input into what the ingredients will be.
Mr. ELLINGTON: They do, but that doesn't make it law. That makes it nothing but a piece of model legislation. And if a legislator doesn't choose to introduce it, then it's one of those thousand bills that's in the library.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you so much for your time.
Mr. ELLINGTON: Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. You are more than welcome. And thank you.
GROSS: Okay. Bye-bye.
Mr. ELLINGTON: Bye-bye.
GROSS: Noble Ellington is the national chairman of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and a Republican member of the Louisiana state legislature.
You'll find links to ALEC's website, the Center for Media and Democracy's archive of leaked ALEC documents, and The Nation magazine's coverage of those documents, on our website, freshair.npr.org.