-By Sarah Blaskey and Steve Horn
May 16, 2012- Taxpayer-subsidized stealth lobbyists: Lobbyists who circumvent normal lobbying regulations and procedures to advance the corporate agenda in statehouses nationwide on the taxpayer dime.
If Washington DC is the new Versailles, run by corporate overlords and their lobbyist-hired guns, then the 50 statehouses are its paternal twins. That is, while they look different in form, they share the same genetic function as avenues for the fulfillment of the corporate agenda.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has made this abundantly clear through its ongoing ALEC Exposed project, bringing sunshine to the tax-deductible, statehouse-level influence-peddling efforts made by corporations through the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has been described by CMD as a "corporate bill mill." (Full disclosure: Steve Horn is a former reporter and researcher at CMD. He was on the team that broke ALEC Exposed in the summer of 2011.)
ALEC, though, is not the only "corporate bill mill" playing this game.
"Taxpayer-subsidized stealth lobbyists" have upped the ante and skillfully advanced their agendas through bipartisan "trade associations" for state government officials – in particular, the Council of State Governments (CSG) whose multimillion-dollar budget is mostly funded by taxpayers. Through CSG and Friends, lobbyists exploit a well-tethered network of nonprofits representing state-level officials to advance the agenda of their corporate clientele.
"In a climate of stalled federal initiatives, and what I think is really unprecedented partisan battling and bickering, these state legislatures are really shaping the national policy environment," explained one such stealth lobbyist, Michael Behm, in an interview. "I really think they [states] are the real engines of government. And that's why the private sector is interested, quite frankly."
This, then, is part one of a four-party story about how the "real engines of government" work. First stop on the voyage: the CSG.
"That Other Bill Mill": Council of State Governments (CSG)
ALEC is far and away the most well known of the consortium of 501(c)(3) organizations that allow corporate influence to seep into every facet of state-level government affairs. CSG, on the other hand, is not so well known.
Upon being sworn into office, all state-level legislators (there are about 7,500 of them total), as well as their respective legislative staffs, automatically become CSG members. The organization's membership also includes representatives from the executive and judicial branches of state governments.
Between 2009 and 2011, CSG's Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 990 forms indicate revenue between $29 and $34 million annually. While most of its sizable budget is covered by taxpayers, some 43 percent – or roughly between $12.5 and 14.6 million, according to its web site; another 29 percent – or almost $8.4 to $9.9 million of these funds – come from what it describes as "entrepreneurial efforts" which can be loosely interpreted to mean anything from publication sales to a sizable chunk from corporate patronage.
Some perspective is warranted: 990s filed by ALEC in 2010 placed its entire budget at just under $6 million.
"CSG has long believed private sector involvement in the American governance system is critical in formulating sound solutions to public policy challenges," reads the web page for the organization's private enterprise Associates Program. The page also explains a range of benefits special interest groups will receive for annual dues of $6,000.
Many corporations spend additional money sponsoring leadership trainings and conferences.