The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, had its 44th annual conference in Denver last week, and just as she’s done since 2013, Wisconsin Democratic state representative Chris Taylor, one of only a handful of Democratic lawmakers among the conference’s 1,600 attendees, was there to get a sneak peek at the legislation that will cross her desk next year.

ALEC describes itself as “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators,” connecting state lawmakers with “experts” to “discuss business and economic issues facing the states.” But to its critics, ALEC represents a dangerous corporate influence on public policy and a way for corporate America to write and disseminate laws.

Read: The Koch Brothers Want A New Constitution — And They’re Closer Than You Think

The group brings corporate lobbyists and lawmakers together to craft “model legislation” that is then introduced by lawmakers throughout the states. Over the years, the group has helped bring Florida’s “stand your ground” gun law to states across the country and initiated many state voter ID laws that critics say are attempts to suppress voting rights for groups likely to vote Democratic.

While the group is officially nonpartisan, the policies it crafts and pushes are pro-business and anti-regulation and have an unmistakably conservative bent. According to Taylor, she has never met another Democratic lawmaker at an annual conference, which was headlined this year by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and last year by then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

There’s no way to definitively know who is a member of ALEC — the group says a quarter of the country’s lawmakers are members but won’t disclose a roster. As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity,  its donors are also secret, although the Koch brothers are known contributors. ALEC also refuses to disclose which corporations are members, although the companies that have left ALEC in protest in recent years is a who’s who of the Fortune 500: BP, Google, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Amazon have all left the group over its more controversial policies, which include opposing efforts to curb climate change and, as the documentary 13th argues, embracing policies that drive mass incarceration.  

Taylor spoke to International Business Times this week about what she saw at the ALEC conference, how it compared to years past, and the group’s call for a constitutional convention to write new amendments that would limit the power and largesse of the federal government. What follows has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you first choose to start going to the ALEC annual conference?

I had a colleague who had joined ALEC and who had gone to a couple conferences. He went off to Congress and I was redistricted into his seat. ( Note: Taylor is referring to Democratic congressman Mark Pocan, the “original ALEC spy .”)  The two of us started going because we saw so many bills that we had never heard of, that people weren’t asking for, and they were coming from ALEC. That’s what I discovered in the process and that’s why I kept going — to get a heads-up on what the right is doing next, but also to expose where these policies come from. People should know these policies should be coming from them. The public isn’t asking for these policies. These corporations are working with right-wing think tanks and the legislators are the foot soldiers.

Based on what you’ve seen, how would you describe ALEC?  

I really think of them as a menage a trois between multinational corporations, right-wing think tanks and legislators that are pushing policies that are about maximizing corporate profits. That’s the foundational issue, in my opinion. It’s about cutting taxes and regulations in general. In my opinion, the whole network is really designed to advance the corporate interest of their members.

There are parts that are extremely disturbing to me. It’s disturbing these policies don’t come from the public, and yet they are dominating, I see them dominating discussions in my state legislature and around the country as well. ALEC doesn’t value, in my opinion, the democratic process. They are pro-voter ID laws and against any campaign finance regulations on free speech grounds. Their fundamental tenets are extremely anti-democratic. It’s very disturbing.

I also have to say this grew out of, apparently, the same movement that produced all of these right-wing think tanks that formed in the early 1970s. ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, all came from the Powell memo. Before he was a Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell warned against ceding capitalism to the hippies. And so ALEC has been working for 44 years now. It has spent a lot of time and tons and tons of money on the infrastructure that they have, which is a really powerful infrastructure. They’ve figured out you can get a lot more done at the state level than at the federal level.

We don’t have any kind of infrastructure like this on the left, nothing like it. Of course, we’d never have an infrastructure so corporate-dominated, but even how they have think tanks and how they network together, we don’t have that. And the corporations direct the agenda and provide all the money. We have nothing that is like this on the left.

What was different at this year’s conference?

This year is obviously different because Republicans control everything. They control the White House and Congress, so the attitude is no longer just rallying against [Barack] Obama. I heard a lot more frustration in some ways, because now the Republicans control everything and they are having such trouble with health care.

The energy people are super happy though. They see tons of opportunity under Trump. But the big push was to amend the federal constitution using an Article V constitutional convention. There is a very vocal segment in ALEC that has concluded that the whole government is corrupt, even Republicans. So a new constitutional convention is the only way to get what they want, which is really a rollback of regulations and taxes. They have not been successful in getting Congress to pull back the social safety net and Medicare, to repeal the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, they haven’t got rid of the EPA. I believe that the Article V constitutional convention is a way to get those done in really sneaky ways. They don’t say to the public, “We don’t want the EPA, we don’t want Medicare.” They say that at the ALEC conference, but the public isn’t at the ALEC conference.

RTX1LJPU Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds up a one dollar bill as he speaks to the 42nd annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in San Diego, California, July 23, 2015. Photo: Reuters

They have a really hard time repealing Medicare, because they have constituents that at least some of them care about. This is really an end run around them, around democracy in some ways. Because they don’t have faith in elected officials to accomplish ALEC’s priorities. And those priorities center around limiting the federal government’s ability to make policy and spend money. So an Article V constitutional convention is how they see they can finally curtail the power of the federal government.

Was the Article V stuff just one of many issues and policy goals discussed at the conference, or was it front and center?

It’s gotten more front and center, honestly. There are two different Article V efforts going on right now, and they are competing and they are critical of each other. There’s the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) Task Force which has been in the works for decades, not anything new. But ALEC devoted a lot of time to the Convention of States, and they probably paid tens of thousands of dollars to get a workshop. They had [former Senators] Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint there, and Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, they had a whole panel, a whole workshop on why the convention effort is so important.

But their effort is much broader than the Task Force’s. They want term limits, they want to limit the power of the federal government in policy, so basically limit the kinds of subject matter the federal government can address. And they want to limit spending. So sort of a three-pronged approach. They were asked by one of the legislators, “Why don’t you join forces with the BBA Task Force and get that done and then focus on the other things?”

Coburn and Meckler basically responded by saying that only working on a balanced budget amendment is not addressing the disease, but only a symptom. Meckler also said, “Look, the balanced budget amendment lost four states this last legislative session.” So four states repealed their call for it, I guess. Meckler basically said they don't have the grassroots capacity to get it done. That’s surprising, because you don't hear a lot of infighting at ALEC. I’ve seen it on the education task force, I’ve seen it some in energy discussions. If there is any representation from renewable energy, they just get shot down and ignored.

But very clearly, the Convention of States, they have a different approach and they don’t believe the BBA Task Force can get it done without a grassroots army. And that’s what they think they have. They have 12 states now and they believe they can get to 34 states, which is the two-thirds you need to call a new constitutional convention, in a couple years.

From my understanding, there’s some confusion, or at least differing opinions, about which states have called for a constitutional conventions, and whether all those calls are cumulative, and count toward the 34 states necessary to call a convention, or whether calls made for different reasons can count together. What’s your understanding?

This is the other thing that Coburn said, that in his opinion the BBA only has 20 to 21 states because so many of the calls are so long ago. He doesn’t believe the language is substantially similar enough to qualify as part of the same count.

On Friday morning, the breakfast was all the BBA Task Force. Don’t know how much they paid, but it was a lot. It was all of them. They brought in Ken Buck, who is the congressman that supports their efforts.

They had a very different, interesting perspective. They said, “We need money.” They actually asked us to give them money. Then they told us, “We need you to push this balanced budget amendment in these states.” And then they named seven or eight, including Wisconsin.

They believe they have 27 states. They said they wanted to meet with legislators from the states they were targeting and that if we were from one of those states we should come talk to them, because they really need us to push it through.

This is the other interesting thing that happened at their presentation. This Senator Barto from Arizona gets up and says that the Arizona legislature has called for a Convention of States in Phoenix on Sept. 12. And there they will establish rules for an Article V constitutional convention. Every state will have seven delegates to send and two alternates and they said they had a website that was ready to go live any minute… [One Arizona state representative] told me, “What we want to do at this Convention of States is to propose amendments we know Congress isn’t going to do anything with. That will emphasize why we need a constitutional convention.” The point is to underscore Congress’s inaction.

ALEC is known as a group that allows corporations to distribute model legislation to state lawmakers. Did you see that?

Absolutely. Just look at Article V. The first rollout of that, when there was really a push for it was my first ALEC conference in 2013. And sitting a few rows in front of me was Chris Kapenga. (Republican Wisconsin state Sen. Kapenga recently sponsored a resolution in the Wisconsin legislature calling for a constitutional convention to introduce a balanced budget amendment. It passed the assembly.) We were told that we needed an Article V convention and we were told to bring this back to our states. I said to myself at the time, “We are definitely going to see this in Wisconsin.” This was in August 2013. By January 2014, he introduced a balanced budget amendment. He didn’t get that idea out of the sky. I like Chris, we have a good banter. But it’s a joke that he thought of it. I was there!

Are there other examples of legislation that you saw there and then saw later in the legislature?

Tons of stuff. God. Honestly, so many. Repealing the prevailing wage, right-to-work. We didn’t think of right-to-work, that’s for sure. Tons, so many examples I can’t even think of them all. Just the rollbacks we’ve seen in environmental protections. I think a lot of that’s inspired by ALEC. If Congress, doesn’t act today (NOTE: the interview took place hours before the U.S. Senate voted to allow debate on the Republican health care bill), I suspect we will see resolutions. They did a resolution calling for limits on Medicaid. They hate the Medicaid expansion, that was like the worst thing ever for them. I suspect if repeal and replace does truly die, what we’re going to see is all of these waivers. States can apply for waivers for Medicare. Big push at ALEC and the Goldwater Institute is for states to apply for waivers. We will see a tsunami of waivers from conservative states.

What’s the relationship between the corporate representatives and the lawmakers there? Is it transactional?

Nobody is saying to me, “You have to vote for this.” Well, actually, that’s not true, there was one guy from the BBA Task Force who did tell me, “You have to get that resolution passed calling for an Article V convention.” They’ve been very aggressive. They’ve been the most aggressive, telling state legislators to get off our butts and rein in the federal government.

Mostly what happens is there are these task force meetings where legislators are pressed to go along with model bills. Certainly, the legislators are not the ones who develop bills. Usually the legislator can’t even coherently talk about the bill, instead it’s the corporate member who talks about it. We are encouraged to go out and get these bills passed. The balanced budget amendment is the most aggressive effort I’ve seen at ALEC. Another time we were told we needed to get our attorneys general to sue the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan.

There’s nine task forces and a variety of subcommittees. That’s where the work gets done, in the subcommittees. I have found that process mostly controlled by right-wing think tanks. But for whatever reason, I got invited to the energy task force dinner, because I go to those meetings, I guess. I said, “Okay, I’ll go, but I’m not on the task force,” but at some point they retracted the invitation. They must have realized, “Oh, we can’t invite her.”

ALEC staff knows who I am. ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson passed me in the hall and said, “Oh, that’s Chris Taylor.” I almost turned around and said, “Hi Lisa, I’m here!” I have to say they used to be a lot more obnoxious towards me. I don’t feel like I am treated that different, although I don’t get any of their emails even though they do have my email address. Since Lisa Nelson got there, a  lot of the these things happen privately. The change I’ve seen over the last couple years is things happen in private. There are private dinners, more private receptions, things I don’t even know about or that are hard to get into. I’m not told where they are. That’s been a bit of a shift, I would say.

What happens in these task force meetings?

Each task force is supposed to have the same number of private sector members and public sector members, which is what they call the legislators. The private sector members are from big corporations and also right-wing think thanks. They got criticized for this, so they did institute a policy where you couldn’t have one of the private sector members bring a model bill forward. But the hilarious thing is the public members turn to private members to say what the bill is and to explain the bill.

One of my colleagues was asked by the American Federation of Children to talk about a bill, and they couldn’t even do it. They had to have bullet points to talk about the bill and introduce the bill. It really is mostly these other groups writing these policies; it’s not the legislators. And you can’t underestimate the role of these right-wing think thanks. They are at the forefront, and the big money that keeps it running is from the big corporations. They pay $50,000 to $100,000 to be members. Then they have to pay for each sponsorship that they do during the conference.

Why do the legislators go to this? What’s your sense from talking to people there?  

Some go because they are true believers. Others go because they are told to go. They are told this is a good place to go and meet corporate lobbyists to give you money for campaigns. It’s a big networking opportunity. Big shots on the right come. DeVos was there, [Newt] Gingrich, all kinds of congressman, senators, state legislators, governors. All the heavy hitters come in from the policy worlds.

I did meet people at this conference, mostly non-legislators, maybe they were repping a corporation or city, who were not drinking the ALEC kool-aid. Who probably were Democrats, I think; I didn’t ask them. Not everybody there is Republican, with the exception of legislators. I have yet to meet a Democratic legislator at ALEC. I met one lobbyist who was like, “Oh my god, I’ve never met a Democrat here.”

You don’t hear anybody taking issue with anything. Some of the things they say, it’s so flat out wrong, sometimes I can’t help myself and I’ll just say, “That's bullshit.”

Like what?

They say so much stuff about public education. I have two kids in public schools. They don’t have kids in public schools. They say what a success school vouchers have been. That’s bullshit: Milwaukee has had that for 30 years and it hasn’t done anything they’ve hoped for. They say Milwaukee is the best example, but it’s the first city in America to adopt vouchers, so there’s tons of data and tons of research on it, and it didn’t do what conservatives said vouchers were going to do, which was that it was going to improve outcomes for poor kids, especially African-American poor kids. They never mention Milwaukee, it’s been a total failure. I said this. This woman next to me said, “Oh, you’re sassy.”

Will you go back next year?

As long as I see them pushing their agenda in my state, I’ll go.