Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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ALEC Boots Mother Jones From Its Annual Conference

| Fri Dec. 6, 2013 4:00 AM PST

Starting Wednesday, hundreds of state lawmakers descended on downtown Washington, DC, for a big three-day confab hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative advocacy group that that brings together lawmakers and representatives of major corporations to draft model legislation on issues such as taxes, energy, workers' rights, education, and agriculture. These bills are then introduced in state legislatures around the country—in some cases, lawmakers pass ALEC-inspired bills without changing a word.

There were dozens of press credentials laid out on ALEC conference's check-in table when I arrived Thursday morning. Mother Jones' was not among them. ALEC's board of directors had refused my request for credentials, according to spokesman Bill Meierling.

When asked why I'd been turned away, Meierling pointed to our previous coverage of ALEC and said it's clear that Mother Jones "fundamentally hates" ALEC. We've covered ALEC for more than a decade—a 2002 exposé titled "Ghostwriting the Law," coverage of the group's proposals regarding voting rights and workers' rights, and more recently the departures of big-name corporate members.

At the same time he was explaining why I couldn't attend, Meierling stressed to me that ALEC is "moving toward transparency." To his credit, he acknowledged the irony.

If ALEC had given me a press credential, the only events I would've been allowed to cover were keynote speeches by Republican luminaries Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and Grover Norquist. But the real action at ALEC conferences, the meat-and-potatoes work, happens at the meetings of the group's many task forces—the environment and energy task force led by American Electric Power, the tax and fiscal policy task force led by tobacco giant Altria, and the international relations task force run by tobacco company Philip Morris. Meierling says that even credentialed reporters can't cover those meetings. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank learned this firsthand on Wednesday, when DC police and ALEC staff stopped him from attending the group's private task force meetings.

It's been a tough week for ALEC. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that the group faced a "funding crisis" after 40 of its corporate members and hundreds of state lawmakers ditched ALEC in the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing last year. Those members fled after it was revealed that ALEC's model legislation included the same Stand Your Ground law invoked by George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who shot and killed Martin. ALEC has since eliminated its gun-related advocacy and, with a narrower fiscal focus, is trying to woo its erstwhile members to back into the fold.

Given the organization's recent struggles, I can understand why ALEC would be feeling defensive. Meierling, the ALEC spokesman, was polite throughout our conversation. We traded business cards before I left and promised to get a drink to talk more about Mother Jones. Fingers crossed for next year.

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Conservative Think Tank Network Plotting "Coordinated Assault" on Medicaid, Education, Workers' Rights

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 3:05 PM PST

The State Policy Network, an umbrella group overseeing a constellation of right-leaning think tanks in all 50 states, is plotting a nationwide "coordinated assault" to cut public-employee pensions, oppose cap-and-trade legislation and Medicaid expansion, and advocate for school vouchers, according to documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper.

The Guardian's documents reveal that State Policy Network's think-tank affiliates sought financial support for this blitz from the GD Searle Trust, a conservative foundation that bankrolls many major nonprofits including Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the climate-denying Heartland Institute. The documents show 40 different funding requests pitching conservative policy reforms that were written by think tanks in 34 states.

Here's more from the Guardian:

Most of the "think tanks" involved in the proposals gathered by the State Policy Network are constituted as 501(c)(3) charities that are exempt from tax by the Internal Revenue Service. Though the groups are not involved in election campaigns, they are subject to strict restrictions on the amount of lobbying they are allowed to perform. Several of the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents propose the launch of "media campaigns" aimed at changing state laws and policies, or refer to "advancing model legislation" and "candidate briefings", in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.

The documents also cast light on the nexus of funding arrangements behind radical right-wing campaigns. The State Policy Network (SPN) has members in each of the 50 states and an annual warchest of $83 million drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, the tobacco company Philip Morris, food giant Kraft and the multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline.

SPN gathered the grant proposals from the 34 states on 29 July. Ranging in size from requests of $25,000 to $65,000, the plans were submitted for funding to the Searle Freedom Trust, a private foundation that in 2011 donated almost $15m to largely rightwing causes.

[…]

The proposals in the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents go beyond a commitment to free enterprise, however. They include:

• "reforms" to public employee pensions raised by SPN thinktanks in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania

• tax elimination or reduction schemes in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, and New York

• an education voucher system to promote private and home schooling in Florida

• campaigns against worker and union rights in Delaware and Nevada

• opposition to Medicaid in Georgia, North Carolina, and Utah

As I've written before, SPN exists to help out its influential state-level affiliates around the country and to push conservative policies in state capitals. It's enjoyed quite a lot of success lately: SPN members also played a role in the crackdown on workers' rights in 2011 in Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, and Tennessee. A year ago this month, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an SPN member, rightly took credit for making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state. Months later, Dick DeVos, the Amway heir and onetime in Michigan gubernatorial candidate, used SPN's annual conference as a chance to share his strategy with state-level allies itching for right-to-work in their states. The Guardian's documents strongly suggest that conservatives are coordinating their attacks on unions, public employees, and government.

Like prominent liberal nonprofit groups, the State Policy Network appears to have plenty more planned for the near future. If you thought the 2011 fight over workers rights was intense, what's coming next could be even fiercer.

The SEC Won't Force Corporations to Disclose Their Political Spending (Yet)

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 7:44 AM PST
SEC chair Mary Jo White.

In the summer of 2011, a group of law school professors filed a petition (PDF) with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the nation's leading financial regulator, asking it to force corporations to disclose their political spending. At the time, a small but growing number of corporations voluntarily revealed their political giving, but the law professors argued that corporate executives shouldn't ever be able to spend shareholders' money on campaigns and elections without telling shareholders where it was going.

Support for the corporate disclosure petition spread like brushfire. More than 600,000 comments—most of them supportive—were filed in response, a record for the SEC. When white-collar attorney Mary Jo White was confirmed as the new SEC chair in April, transparency advocates hoped she would take action on the issue.

Over the weekend, those hopes were dashed. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that White's SEC has dropped corporate disclosure from its 2014 to-do list:

Missing from the Security and Exchange Commission's list of regulatory priorities for the coming year is any plan to consider whether public companies should disclose their political spending, a setback for investor advocates who rallied behind the cause.

Last year around this time, when the SEC released its 2013 to-do list, it signaled that it might consider formally proposing a rule to require the spending disclosures. But the item slipped off the 2014 agenda released this past week without any formal explanation.

Supporters of the disclosure petition couldn't hide their disappointment at White's decision to sideline the issue:

"[White] obviously did not really recognize the significance of this," said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which has pioneered the push for political spending disclosures. "She is not looking at investor protection and corporate governance broadly. You do not see those as primary drivers of her agenda."

Robert J. Jackson, one of the professors involved in crafting the petition, said he has not lost hope.

The agency's new agenda is geared toward advancing proposals that are mandated by Congress, so it is not surprising that a non-mandatory initiative has dropped off the radar screen for now, he said. The agency is not precluded from acting on a matter, even if it's not on the formal agenda, according to federal statute.

"I remain hopeful that the SEC will eventually take up this rule," said Jackson, an associate professor at Columbia Law School. "I'm hopeful that when the SEC looks at the merits, they're going to decide that a rule is necessary."

In other words, corporate disclosure isn't dead at the SEC. It's just on the back burner for 2014. Certainly nothing major will happen before the 2014 midterm elections. The 2016 presidential race? Maybe. In the meantime, you can expect ongoing pressure from the advocates who churned out those hundreds of thousands of SEC comments.

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