Has ALEC Lost Its Touch?

The supposedly powerful conservative organization is on a serious losing streak.

June 09, 2015

Photo: tehusagent/Flickr

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is supposed to be the puppet master of right-wing politics. Corporate financiers pay thousands of dollars to attend the group’s closed-door conferences, where they conspire with conservative state legislators to draft laws that destroy the environment, prevent minorities from voting, and block immigration reform. Journalists call the group “powerful” and “shadowy.”

Those are the wrong adjectives, if the group’s performance in 2015 is any indicator. Better choices might be “ineffectual,” or perhaps even “bumbling.” This year, ALEC has focused on two major environmental initiatives: undermining renewable portfolio standards and blocking the president’s Clean Power Plan. According to research compiled by Aliya Haq, a climate policy advocate at NRDC (disclosure), both of those efforts have failed miserably.

Renewable portfolio standards, or RPS, have long been an ALEC bugbear. The state-by-state rules require utilities to generate a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources like wind or solar. ALEC’s members, including coal giants like Peabody Energy and oil companies like Exxon, claim that an RPS “distorts the energy market and picks winners and losers,” and that the standards violate ALEC’s vision of “free market environmentalism.”

Earlier this year, state legislators affiliated with ALEC introduced anti–renewable energy legislation in 14 states—with remarkably bad results. In Texas, for example, former ALEC legislator of the year Senator Troy Fraser introduced a bill to end the state’s renewable portfolio standards. The bill didn’t even get a vote on the House floor. In Colorado, Senator Bill Cadman, a member of the ALEC board, cosponsored legislation to lower the state’s renewable energy requirement. That bill also failed. Overall, ALEC-sponsored attacks on renewable energy failed in 11 of the 14 states they targeted, despite strong conservative majorities in several of the legislatures. (The three bills that did succeed were pyrrhic victories. Kansas, for example, has already achieved its 20 percent renewable energy goal, so weakening the requirement will have no effect—the state’s wind turbines will keep on whirring.)

Most of the anti-RPS bills died without serious debate, so the red-state legislators never had the chance to publicly explain why they turned their backs on a major ALEC priority. But we can make a few educated guesses. Some states, like the aforementioned Texas and Colorado, host thriving wind energy industries. They’ve already seen the economic benefits of supporting renewables. Texas alone has nearly 18,000 wind workers. Legislators in those states likely viewed repealing RPS as an act of madness, even if it came with an appealing patina of free-market rhetoric.

In other states, legislators probably recognized that renewable portfolio standards are extremely popular. Just last week, a University of Michigan poll found that an impressive 74 percent of Americans believe states should require a portion of electricity to come from renewable sources—and that support cuts across every demographic group. Few legislators are willing to zig when three-quarters of their constituents want them to zag, no matter what the corporate paymasters at ALEC say.

ALEC’s opposition to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan—the proposed rules to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030—has also stumbled embarrassingly.

The Clean Power Plan is designed as a collaborative exercise in federalism. States are supposed to devise plans to meet carbon-reduction targets, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will approve any plan that appears likely to succeed. So far this year, ALEC-backed legislators in 22 states have introduced bills to prohibit their governments from designing a plan—basically, they want their states to abstain from the EPA program. An incredible 21 of those 22 have declined to follow ALEC’s lead, giving the group a success rate of just below 5 percent. If ALEC’s legislative strategy were a baseball player, it would be the worst hitter in the majors.

Some of the opposition to ALEC’s legislation could be strategic—states that refuse to devise their own plans will have the EPA’s dictates forced upon them, and governors who spend their lives haranguing federal environmental regulators wouldn’t enjoy that relationship. But as with renewable portfolio standards, much of the resistance to ALEC likely comes from constituent pressure. A 2014 Wall Street Journal poll found that 67 percent of Americans either strongly support or somewhat support the Clean Power Plan, proving that ALEC has a tin ear when it comes to environmental politics.

Speaking of tin body parts, the great and powerful ALEC looks like a bit of a fraud. Maybe we no longer have to pay attention to the men behind the curtain


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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