By Brendan Fischer on Feb 13, 2014
In light of the proposed merger between Time Warner and Comcast -- both of which have been longtime funders of the American Legislative Exchange Council or "ALEC" -- the Center for Media and Democracy is publishing this updated fact sheet, developed jointly with Common Cause, on how ALEC helps these telecom companies advance their legislative agenda through the states.
ALEC is a conduit for big business and right-wing special interests to advance their agenda through the states and exert significant influence over state law and policy – but without the public ever knowing. At closed-door ALEC meetings, state legislators sit down with lobbyists for corporations like AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Comcast, and News Corp to be handed changes to our laws that further the right wing agenda and directly benefit the corporate bottom line.
ALEC is perhaps best known for its role in advancing Stand Your Ground legislation like that cited in Florida to initially protect Trayvon Martin’s killer from prosecution, and which has become an issue in other cases like the killing of Jordan Davis. Voter suppression proposals to require ID at the polls can be traced back to ALEC, as can efforts to attack unions, privatize education, and roll-back renewable energy standards.
Perhaps less known is ALEC’s role in limiting broadband access and helping big telecom companies avoid regulation.
ALEC's Deregulatory Telecom Agenda
- The ALEC “Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act” is a “model” bill for states to thwart local efforts to create public broadband access. Promoted under the guise of “fair competition” and “leveling the playing field,” this big telecom-supported bill imposes regulations on community-run broadband that they would never tolerate themselves. Iterations of this anti-municipal broadband bill passed in 19 states to stop local governments in communities like Wilson, North Carolina from wiring their communities with fiber.
- The ALEC “Cable and Video Competition Act” attacks municipal cable franchises and frees cable companies from oversight. The bill creates a single state franchising authority and releases the companies from requirements to wire the entire state, and allows companies to decide when – or if – to build out cable, and through that cable, to provide adequate internet access. In North Carolina, for example, the bill passed under the name “the Video Service Competition Act” in 2006 with the promise that deregulation would result in greater investment by cable broadband providers; but instead, the state is tied for last place in terms of the number of homes with a basic broadband connection. An estimated twenty-three states have enacted statewide video franchising laws in recent years. Additionally, bills like this one harm public access television stations, since cable companies no longer negotiate with individual jurisdictions and pay the franchising fees that fund public, educational, and government access television.
- The ALEC “Broadband and Telecommunications Deployment Act” would give telecommunications providers access to all public rights-of-way, and make it harder for local communities to charge franchising fees or otherwise regulate providers. Cable and internet is largely wired via publicly-owned “rights of way” – like under sidewalks or along utility poles – and traditionally, telecom providers profiting from the use of these public goods would be granted access in exchange for some sort of accountability, such as paying for access or providing services on a non-discriminatory basis to all customers willing to pay. This bill would largely eliminate local control over public rights-of-way in favor of telecommunications providers.
Big Telecom Stands With ALEC
The fact that ALEC has been a key avenue for the big telecom agenda is little wonder given that AT&T’s head of legislative strategy, Bill Leahy, sits on the ALEC Private Enterprise Board, and the current president of ALEC, Ron Scheberle, was previously a lobbyist for Verizon.
As the public has grown increasingly aware of ALEC, more than 90 major corporations and non-profit groups have dropped their ALEC membership after the organization’s connections to Stand Your Ground and voter ID laws became public. Companies like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and Amazon recognized that the benefits of maintaining their ALEC membership were not outweighed by the reputational costs of being associated with ALEC’s extreme agenda. But internet providers and telecom companies – AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Comcast – have remained involved with ALEC, apparently deciding that whatever costs to their reputation that might accrue from remaining associated with the organization are not outweighed by the benefits of being an ALEC member.
ALEC Provides Corporations With Unmatchable Access and Influence
If a lobbyist wants to contact a legislator within a state and make their views known, they have their ear for perhaps 15 minutes, and usually are required to disclose the effort. But through ALEC, corporate interests can access legislators for three days of meetings, workshops, and parties, where elected officials are a captive audience and the public has zero access. And, even though many states prohibit corporations and lobbyists from influencing legislators through gifts and favors, ALEC has provided a way for special interests to sidestep these laws.
The ALEC “scholarship” scheme allows corporate interests to funnel money to legislators to pays for their flights, hotel rooms, and meals for ALEC meetings. Based on available records, AT&T is the second-highest donor to the scholarship fund giving over $101,000 in flights and hotel rooms over approximately a two-year period. Verizon gave $37,000 over that same short period. Additionally, these companies sponsor expensive parties – for example, at a 2011 ALEC meeting, Time Warner Cable sponsored an all-expenses-paid party box at a major league baseball game for state legislators to rub shoulders with lobbyists.
For many years the United States had led the world in broadband access. Now, thanks in large part to corporations promoting a deregulatory agenda through ALEC, the nation ranks 15th in the world.