Earlier this month, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed a bill that would curb the ability of asbestos-exposure victims to recover losses from some of the companies that are legally responsible for their suffering. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) approved a similar bill last week, joining Arizona, Idaho, and Utah, which all passed laws limiting corporate liability for asbestos-related claims in March. In recent years, these kinds of laws have passed in fifteen other states as well.
The rash of eerily similar bills appearing everywhere at once is not a coincidence. The legislation is a product of teamwork between the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Crown Holdings, Inc., a Fortune 500 company that has spent the better part of the last decade trying to legislate its way out of compensating cancer and mesothelioma victims who were exposed to asbestos by a company they purchased in 1963.
Despite this remarkably successful multi-state campaign to absolve a single corporation of liability to the detriment of thousands of suffering Americans, the ALEC/Crown crusade has been a quiet one, thanks to state media institutions that have failed to provide meaningful coverage of the issue (or, occasionally, failed to cover it entirely). As a result, important laws that profoundly affect the lives of many voters are being approved without serious public consideration.
ALEC Meets Crown Holdings
Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings began its campaign to eliminate its asbestos liabilities through legislative action as early as 2001, when it spent $100,000 to influence legislators in its home state of Pennsylvania. Despite originally failing early in the year, the asbestos measure was resurrected successfully in late 2001 as an amendment to another bill. The move was led by State House Republican leader Rep. John Perzel, who has subsequently received tens of thousands of dollars from Crown Holdings over the past decade.
Perzel was awarded "State Legislator of the Year" from ALEC at the end of 2001. ALEC's executive director hailed Perzel as "a leader who truly personifies the Jeffersonian principles of liberty, limited government, and free-markets." But Perzel is now in state prison, after being convicted this year of helping to divert $10 million in public funds toward Republican campaigns for re-election.
Perzel's 2001 sleight-of-hand maneuver to resurrect the defeated asbestos liability provision is still being felt. With the momentum of a Pennsylvania victory under its wings, Crown Holdings, with ALEC's help, would successfully push identical legislation in 19 other states while employing a strategy of spending big on lobbyists and political contributions.
Michigan vs. Minnesota
Michigan and Minnesota are two of the most recent examples of these asbestos liability bills reaching the highest level, but the prominent media institutions in those states covered the issue in drastically different ways -- one giving the asbestos topic front page exposure and one failing to cover the topic entirely.
Michigan's two largest newspapers, the Detroit Free Press and the Grand Rapids Press, fall into the latter category. A Media Matters analysis turned up no reporting whatsoever on the state's asbestos bill, despite public testimony from Crown Holdings's general counsel explicitly stating that the bill -- and all of the others they've had passed in other states -- is an ALEC-designed measure that will help his company specifically at the expense of exposure victims.
While the Detroit Free Press and Grand Rapids Press was silent, Progress Michigan was comparing ALEC's model legislation to Michigan's asbestos bill back in October, when they determined that the text of the Michigan bill looks to have been "copied-and-pasted" from the ALEC model.
In contrast, Minnesota's largest newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, reported on ALEC's influence in the Minnesota tort reform debate on their front page in a 786-word article published in February:
A national effort by an $8 billion can manufacturer to shield itself from costly asbestos lawsuits has reached the Minnesota Legislature, triggering criticism from victims' advocates, who say the campaign puts a single corporation's interests over people who have been harmed by the deadly material.
Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings Inc., which has three manufacturing plants in southern Minnesota, is seeking to change state law to prevent more asbestos claims stemming from a 1960s merger.
The company has been helped by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business-friendly group that helps craft model legislation for use in legislatures across the country. Minnesota is one of five states considering the proposal this year.
The Star-Tribune went on to note that "even though it doesn't mention Crown Cork by name, the bill narrowly targets the company's interests." The information exposed by the paper was subsequently echoed and supplemented around the Internet and in other Minnesotan papers.
Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed the asbestos bill amid the outcries, and MinnPost.com followed up last week by noting that the bill was one of seven vetoed measures this year that was originally crafted by ALEC:
The bill was the seventh vetoed measure this year that originally was drafted and disseminated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive, far-right group that has birthed much of the virtually identical pro-business, anti-labor legislation that has swept through statehouses nation-wide over the last two years.
Five of the vetoed ALEC bills would have reduced corporate exposure to lawsuits and potential damages in Minnesota. The other two are the Voter ID bill and the Castle Doctrine or "Shoot First" bill.
ALEC has recently announced that they are eliminating their activities in "non-economic issues," but expect to continue initiatives such as the asbestos liability bill that they label "free-market, limited government, pro-growth."
Informing voters about third party influences on state laws that curb the rights of the most vulnerable Americans is a longstanding (and, tragically, oft-ignored) duty of the media as the so-called "fourth branch" of government. A few more states (MA, WV, TN and again in PA) have similar asbestos liability bills pending, and it's up to media institutions in those states to begin informing their readers on the issue before it's too late.