Burns and ALEC

For a one-party state, Arizona has a surprisingly split political personality.
On one hand there's proposition politics. Place a question on the ballot, and Arizona voters instantly think like Abbie Hoffman. In recent times, Arizonans have said "yes" to radical campaign finance reform and one of the country's highest tobacco taxes. They said "no" to so-called "tort reform," a favorite among business interests; and to a "private property rights" measure aimed to keep the Endangered Species Act out of the way of development. And last month, for the second time, they approved the medical use of marijuana.

But when it comes to candidates, the same voters send a different message. They keep sending the likes of Atilla the Hun back to the Arizona Legislature. Compounding the puzzle is the fact that the state Legislature is so out of touch with the people--and so indifferent to their will--that every time a progressive initiative does pass, the lawmakers try to dismantle it. This year, some progressive activists finally got smart and came up with a ballot initiative, the Voter Protection Act, which makes it more difficult for the Legislature to mess around with initiatives and referendums already approved by the people.

That one passed, too.
So why are the citizens of Arizona and the majority of their state legislators poles apart? I think I've found the missing link: the American Legislative Exchange Council, nicknamed ALEC.

You've likely never heard of it, but this Washington, D.C., think tank has wormed its agenda into most every committee room down at the Arizona capitol.

The idea behind ALEC is a simple, tactically smart one, one others have tried to emulate with less success. Instead of spreading itself all over the right wing at every government level, as the much larger Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute have, ALEC is single-minded in its purpose: It's a clearinghouse and cheerleader for conservative legislation, purely at the state level.

What does ALEC want? The group's overarching philosophy is all about what pundits call the "devolution revolution," the states rights movement.

"ALEC is dedicated to developing model policies based on the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty," according to its promotional materials. The organization is funded largely by the private business sector, whose representatives--alongside the lawmakers--actually have a hand in determining its agenda, so it's no surprise that ALEC tends to support lower taxes and other business-friendly measures.

ALEC claims a membership of 3,000 state legislators, which is a lot, considering there are only about 7,000 such officeholders in the country. While ALEC calls itself bipartisan, the elephant's share of its Arizona membership is Republican. Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Phoenix Democrat, says he doesn't know of any Arizona Democrats who attend ALEC meetings.

And this year, Arizona State Senate President Brenda Burns has been elected to chair ALEC's board of directors.

The Arizona Legislature has long been one of ALEC's favorites, because it both floats and creates model legislation for ALEC.

In the mid-Nineties, during the height of the Republican Revolution in Washington, D.C., then-governor Fife Symington and members of the Arizona Legislature, including Brenda Burns, were trying to launch a revolution of their own, fighting for ALEC's pet cause: states' rights.

When Attorney General Grant Woods wouldn't play along in the Legislature's game to pass state laws that were clear violations of federal law--like that infamous measure that "legalized" the use of federally forbidden Freon--Fife and Co. told the AG to bug off and hired their own lawyer. They created the Constitutional Defense Council. The CDC movement fizzled, but ALEC has streamlined the Arizona CDC bill and now offers it to members as one of dozens of pieces of "model legislation" they can introduce in their own statehouses.

You can see all of ALEC's model legislation on the group's Web site, at

There's model legislation for an environmental audit bill, which has popped up twice in our Legislature, dubbed "The Polluter Protection Act" by opponents who don't want to let business self-regulate pollution cleanup. There's model legislation for another perennial Arizona favorite, a private property rights bill, which sounds good on its face until you learn it's really designed to allow property owners to circumvent the Endangered Species Act.

ALEC borrows Arizona's bills and makes them models. But Arizona legislators also borrow ALEC's model bills and ideas floated at ALEC conferences and introduce them as their own.

Arizona's welfare reform legislation--now law--was based in large part on ALEC's model welfare reform legislation. Senator George Cunningham, a Tucson Democrat who is not a member of ALEC, says that during the 1998 legislative session, "The [Senate] Government Reform Committee existed to send ALEC's agenda onto the floor of the Senate where the Democrats and the moderate Republicans ganged up to kill it."

The Senate Government Reform Committee, led by Senator Tom Patterson, a northeast Phoenix Republican who also serves as ALEC's state chair, heard many ALEC-friendly proposals, including measures to privatize social security and authorize the continuation of the Constitutional Defense Council.

My favorites: The committee also heard bills recommending renaming National Airport in Washington, D.C., and the Squaw Peak Parkway in Phoenix after ALEC's poster boy, Ronald Reagan. It's not clear why anyone would care what the Arizona State Legislature thought about the renaming of National Airport.

None of the measures mentioned above, by the way, found their way to the Governor's desk.

Surf the ALEC Web site, and you'll hit wave after wave of bills designed to chip away at the public education system, toward eventual, total privatization. There's a bill creating a flat tax and bills authorizing public-private partnerships in just about any government businesses you can think of.

Here are summaries of a few of the dozens of pieces of ALEC model legislation. Sometimes the real goal is lost in the frothy language of ALEC, so I'm providing interpretation. Pay attention. Many on the list are destined to pop up in the next legislative session come January.

Civil Rights Act:
ALEC summary: " . . . prohibits any state entity from discriminating or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. As a result, all set-aside contracts and affirmative action programs targeted at such individuals or groups would be void."

Wonk summary: Do away with all affirmative action programs.
Elimination of Non-Federally Mandated Benefits:
ALEC summary: " . . . eliminates all Medical Assistance benefits not mandated by the federal government. The chronically needy General Assistance recipient would continue to receive federally mandated Medical Assistance coverage. All optional services would no longer be made available."

Wonk summary: Do away with state programs for the needy, which in Arizona could affect roughly 24,000 people who make less than $3,600 a year.

At-Will Employment Act:
ALEC summary: "Under traditional 'at will' employment, either the employee or employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason or no reason at all. Many courts and legislatures have modified this traditional relationship, sometimes even requiring an employer to show good cause before being able to terminate the employment relationship. The At-Will Employment Act stipulates that employment relationships shall be 'at-will,' unless otherwise specified in an employment contract. The Act also restricts remedies available in the courts for discharged employees."

Wonk summary: Remove all employee rights from the law.
Economic Liberty Resolution:
ALEC summary: " . . . to establish a Joint Legislative Committee on Economic Freedom for the purposes of identifying legal and regulatory barriers to private investment and entrepreneurship, and proposing legislation on such other actions as may be necessary to remove such barriers."

Wonk summary: Eliminate all laws that industry doesn't like.
Economic Impact Statement:
ALEC summary: " . . . designed to provide environmental protection while permitting the creating of wealth through requiring an economic analysis of new environmental regulations. Key components of the bill include: detailed short-term and long-term economic effects of regulation and legislative review of regulators."

Wonk summary: Eliminate all environmental laws that industry doesn't like.
Starting (Minimum) Wage Repeal Act:
ALEC summary: " . . . repeals all starting (minimum) wage laws and preempts localities from enacting further laws which would attempt to establish a starting wage."

Wonk summary: Are we in Taiwan?

Brenda Burns' ascension to ALEC's chair comes in the 11th hour. She wasn't slated to head the group until next year, but the scheduled chair, Representative Carolyn Oakley, lost her senate election bid in Oregon's state legislature.

But Burns knows this territory well. She's been an ALEC member since she first joined the Arizona Legislature in 1987. Last March, she represented the group before Congress, lobbying for a bill that would give states more power in making amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The bill went nowhere, but the testimony gave Burns national visibility. Chairing ALEC will do that, too, increasing speculation among her Arizona colleagues that Burns may be planning to run for Congress or a statewide office when she's term-limited out of the state senate in 2000.

As for the impact of Burns' ALEC chairmanship on the Arizona Legislature? It's clear Arizona will continue to be ALEC's Petri dish. But don't count on a runaway conservative success--Burns is leading a Senate that, after the last election, is more moderate than it's been in years.

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: [email protected]

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at