Net metering policies, which allow utilities' customers to send energy from solar panels on their homes into the electric grid in exchange for a credit, are being threatened by efforts in several states to roll back or dismantle the policies -- most of which are bolstered by anti-solar myths from utilities and fossil fuel interests that are being parroted in the media. Here are the facts about net metering.
On July 22, the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) annual meeting will once again see corporations and state lawmakers gather to discuss and vote on model legislation meant for introduction in state legislatures across the country. On the eve of the three-day conference in San Diego, Media Matters looks back at five examples of great reporting by local news teams who pulled back the curtain and held ALEC accountable for hosting lobbyists and legislators in secret meetings -- where they wrote corporate-supported bills blocking minimum wage hikes, attacking unions, and eliminating environmental regulations -- and previews this year's agenda.
Following an investigation by Atlanta's 11Alive into the inner workings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- the secretive organization that brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to draft model legislation businesses want to see passed - RedState editor-and-chief, Fox News contributor, and Atlanta-based radio host Erick Erickson gave an ALEC spokesman a platform to deflect questions raised by the report and used his own microphone to question the investigative reporter's character.
On May 21, Atlanta's 11Alive News Tonight aired a report by Brendan Keefe that exposed what went on at an ALEC conference at a hotel in Savannah, Georgia. Keefe's reporting laid bare the cozy relationships between lobbyists and legislators that ALEC facilitates and revealed ALEC's hostile attitude towards the press. Keefe and his crew were denied access to meetings between Georgia legislators and corporate representatives, even though they displayed official press credentials. ALEC's vice president of public affairs, Bill Meierling, even tried to get Keefe thrown out of the hotel, where Keefe was a registered guest, with the help of uniformed police officers hired by ALEC as private security.
ALEC responded to 11Alive's investigation by saying Keefe's questions had "caught [Meierling] off guard," but had no comment on the story's revelations.
But Meierling had plenty to say on the June 4 broadcast of The Erick Erickson Show. During the interview, Meierling attacked Keefe's reporting by claiming he "snuck into a conference room" under a fake name "not for the purpose of interviewing anyone or having a frank discussion but to shove three cameras in people's faces and have a 'gotcha' moment." Meierling said if Keefe applied for media credentials from ALEC, the group could "try to shape the things that he was interested in." Erickson also defended the group and attacked 11Alive's report by claiming that Keefe had attempted to portray ALEC as a "vast right wing conspiracy group fueled by money" and "wining and dining legislators and shaping evil policies," all of which Erickson posited is untrue.
Keefe responded to Erickson's interview in a June 11 article on 11Alive's website that contained screenshots of ALEC's website showing that the group had changed its media policy since 11Alive's investigation aired. He also noted that 11Alive had repeatedly requested an interview with someone from ALEC but received no response.
The sudden change in policy at the American Legislative Exchange Council was made after the 11Alive Investigators were kicked out of an ALEC legislative committee meeting inside a Savannah resort hotel. Chatham County Sheriff's deputies, directly hired and paid by ALEC, were used to remove us from the entire hotel even though we had paid for a room.
The ALEC media policy remains nearly identical to the one in place when we launched our investigation, but after our report the line barring media was quietly removed and replaced with, "plenary sessions and workshops are open to members of the media."
A screen grab obtained by The Investigators in May and a capture of the same web page from earlier this year on archive.org both show the original line prohibiting reporters and their cameras: "business meetings and networking events are not open to members of the media."
That media prohibition was quietly removed, and the new line was inserted at the same time ALEC complained to a political commentator that we had never contacted the organization before the event. It turns out we did reach out to ALEC media relations twice in the months leading up to the closed-door Savannah meeting, but we never received any response to our requests.
Keefe also addressed the charge that he had used a fake name, or tried to conceal his motives for seeking an interview, and corrected Meierling and Erickson's claim that it was a Georgia Democrat who criticized ALEC in 11Alive's report; it was, in fact, a Georgia Republican and former ALEC member who said the group was full of "angry white men...controlled by industry."
While Meierling still won't talk with us, he did speak to conservative talk show host Erick Erickson, insisting that we would have been welcome inside the meeting had we simply pre-registered for ALEC credentials. Erickson and Meierling insisted we had booked the hotel "under an assumed name." My whole family stayed at the hotel that week, and my wife and I booked the room under the name "Keefe" which I assumed 46 years ago at birth.
The radio interview also attributed a quote that ALEC was a group of "angry white men" to the wrong Georgia senator. Meierling and Erickson told listeners the quote came from Senator Nan Orrock, a democrat who was a member of a "left wing competitor of ALEC."
But Senator Orrock didn't say that. Republican senator and former ALEC member Renee Unterman told us ALEC was a group of "angry white men...controlled by industry."
Despite Meierling and Erickson claims that media have an easy time gaining access to ALEC meetings, attempts by journalists to investigate what really goes on inside ALEC meetings between legislators and lobbyists are often shut down by the group. And while Meierling tried to downplay the monetary influence these lobbyists have on legislators, saying "there's absolutely nothing nefarious about discussing limited government," lawmakers pay a very small proportion of ALEC's membership fees, while corporations pay up to $10,000 a year for access to legislators -- payments that add up to 98 percent of ALEC's revenues.
11Alive's investigation isn't the first to prove Erickson's claim that ALEC isn't "wining and dining" legislators wrong. In fact, ALEC's generosity towards lawmakers goes far beyond dinner, and includes "scholarship" programs that often involve paying legislators' way on trips to meet lobbyists at resorts and other vacation destinations, like the hotel in Savannah where Keefe tried to find out more about the group's activities. The same legislators who go on these junkets have supported such ALEC-promoted laws as "Stand Your Ground," which has been used to defend the reckless use of firearms; dangerous climate initiatives that promote corporate profits over public interests; and legislation to block increases in the minimum wage.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has responded to an investigation by Atlanta's 11Alive News Tonight, which exposed millions of viewers to the influence of ALEC's corporate members over the Georgia Legislature.
ALEC, which has a history of blocking press access to its functions, refused to let a news reporter from the station cover a meeting between state legislators, corporate representatives, and lobbyists in late May at a Savannah resort. However, the reporter, 11Alive's Brendan Keefe, talked to former ALEC members to find out more and recorded a conversation with a legislator and lobbyist at a hotel bar who offered details of how the group gives state lawmakers free hotel stays and provides them with corporate-backed legislation suggestions.
ALEC responded to 11Alive's investigation by saying its reporter's questions "caught [the spokesperson] off-guard." The group said it has "welcomed journalists from prominent outlets" to its events in the past, but through its lawyers, denied permission to the station to broadcast video it took of the legislators meeting with members of ALEC representing corporations and lobbying interests.
In fact, ALEC has often hired private security or off-duty police officers to remove unwanted reporters, like Keefe in this instance, from its meetings with legislators. Security guards working at the 2011 ALEC annual meeting in New Orleans physically removed ThinkProgress reporters Lee Fang and Scott Keyes from the hotel in which the conference was being held. In 2013, uniformed Washington D.C. police turned away Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.
Reporters critical of ALEC are denied even the limited access granted to the handpicked journalists ALEC allows to attend portions of their conferences. As Toronto Star reporter Olivia Ward discovered in 2011, some journalists, along with protestors, are threatened with arrest while trying to cover ALEC conferences:
I'm talking to a fellow hotel guest, Beau Hodai, a journalist from the left-wing magazine, In These Times, who has written probing articles on ALEC. Unlike me, he hasn't enjoyed its co-operation and credentials. His calls have gone unanswered, and he has been turned back by the police and guards who firewall the meeting.
The noise level in the bar rises and so do I. As I say goodnight, Beau is summoned by hotel security and herded away toward the elevator by uniformed police. Why? In Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, I was evicted from my hotel by machine-gun-toting militias as the Kosovo war began. But in America. . . ?
ALEC and their corporate sponsors have a vested interest in keeping their conferences confidential. In secrecy, lobbyists and lawyers construct model right-wing legislation to be introduced in state houses across the country. These model laws include the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which has been used in high-profile cases to defend an individual's use of deadly force. In its investigation, 11Alive reported on legislation that "severely limits who can file asbestos claims against corporations," showing a side-by-side comparison of ALEC's template for the bill, and the nearly identical bill passed by the Georgia legislature in 2007. Minnesota passed a similar ALEC-authored asbestos bill in 2012.
As ALEC's profile has become more public and the unethical implications of its corporate-written legislation have become more obvious, some major companies have quit the group. Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft have all left the organization in the last two years. However, the departure of Google may be the most notable as its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, cited ALEC's climate change denial as Google's reason for leaving (emphasis added):
"The company has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts -- what a shock," said Schmidt. "And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people -- they're just, they're just literally lying."
As the Center for Media and Democracy's Brendan Fischer has reported, ALEC's 2015 agenda is no less controversial despite the loss of a few powerful members. According to Fischer, ALEC's focus this year will be on efforts to stifle the growing minimum wage movement among localities as well as supporting union busting right-to-work legislation.
Beyond continuing to create model legislation for state governments, ALEC has also launched a subsidiary to focus on more city and county legislation. Bloomberg noted that the newly formed American City County Exchange will work to increase privatization of municipal functions by "push[ing] policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group's state strategies."
From the May 21 edition of WXIA-TV's 11 Alive News Tonight:
The Associated Press reported that national groups including the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are heralding the repeal of West Virginia's alternative energy mandate as a lynchpin to repeal stronger renewable energy standards in other states. But the AP identified the Heartland Institute and ALEC only as "national small government groups," ignoring their significant ties to the fossil fuel industry.
West Virginia will likely soon become the first state to repeal an alternative energy standard, following a multi-year campaign by fossil fuel interests to target more environmentally-friendly renewable energy standards in statehouses across the country. In recent days, both chambers of the West Virginia state legislature easily passed a bill repealing the state's Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires 25 percent of the state's energy to come from alternative power sources (including non-renewable sources) by 2025.
The AP reported on January 31 that groups including the Heartland Institute and ALEC "argue renewable energy plans limit free market choices and could result in higher electricity costs," but did not reveal that these groups are tied to fossil fuel interests that would benefit from repealing clean energy standards:
After West Virginia legislators voted to delete a law that counts burning tires and some coal as alternative fuels, national small government groups are turning the uncontroversial repeal into a rally cry to remove more stringent energy standards in other states.
National small government lobbies, including The Heartland Institute, still heralded the repeal's passage in West Virginia in early January as a win and a call to action.
"One can only hope other states follow West Virginia's sensible lead," H. Sterling Burnett, Research Fellow, Environment & Energy Policy for The Heartland Institute, said in a news release after the state House passed the bill Jan. 22.
The groups argue renewable energy plans limit free market choices and could result in higher electricity costs. But for years, the American Legislative Exchange Council and others have failed to get any states to delete their standards.
As The Washington Post has noted, "In many cases, the groups involved [in efforts to undermine renewable energy standards and other environmental initiatives] accept money from oil, gas and coal companies that compete against renewable energy suppliers." The anti-renewables campaign by Heartland and ALEC is a case in point.
Media outlets covering the fight against greater competition in the broadband market should note the role that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) played in blocking competition in 19 states. The media has a history of ignoring ALEC's role in pushing model legislation.
HBO's John Oliver did what many others in the media have not by shining a spotlight on the shadowy influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But ALEC's latest initiative, which has its sights set on molding county and municipal governments, has deeper aspirations than even Oliver's show explored -- and has been almost entirely ignored by the media.
ALEC is an organization funded mostly by corporations and conservative organizations, whose purpose, according to Fortune magazine, is to "bring business-friendly state lawmakers together with lobbyists for corporations." ALEC drafts model legislation designed to push conservative corporate agendas at the state level and does not shy away from boasting about its outsized influence on local lawmakers.
The rash of discriminatory voter ID laws popping up across the country in the past couple of election cycles was largely fueled by ALEC. This year, the group has seen success dismantling clean energy standards.
On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver described ALEC succinctly as "a conservative bill mill which has helped develop model legislation from Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill to bills expanding private prisons, payday loan companies and for-profit colleges":
OLIVER: It's basically a conservative bill mill which has helped develop model legislation from Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill to bills expanding private prisons, payday loan companies and for-profit colleges, all of which we've talked about on this very show. In fact, I'm going to list ALEC in the credits for our show as associate producer of creating horrifying things for us to talk about. Great work, ALEC! See you at the end-of-season wrap party, you pieces of shit.
The thing is, ALEC is everywhere. Roughly 1 in 4 state legislators are members, and it's not hard to see why. ALEC makes their jobs troublingly easy. Here's their model electricity freedom bill, which at one point says, "be it therefore enacted that the state of, insert state, repeals the renewable energy mandate." So, as long as you can remember and spell the name of your state, you can introduce legislation.
One reason the group has been able to remain relatively free from public scrutiny is that the media has traditionally failed to cover the connections between ALEC members serving in state legislatures and the ALEC model legislation influencing the bills they introduce -- an issue so blatant that, as Oliver points out, occasionally text is lifted word-for-word from ALEC model bills.
The good news is that over the past couple of years, ALEC's operation has been more frequently exposed to the light of day, and the group has seen sponsors scamper away as a result.
The bad news is that ALEC is expanding its influence to a hyper-local level, which even Last Week Tonight overlooked.
In August, ALEC launched an initiative to take its model legislation beyond statehouses and into city councils and county commissions. This new spinoff, the American City County Exchange, "will push policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group's state strategies." The corporate influence of the initiative is poignantly illustrated by the group's membership fee disparity: Local council members and county commissioners are required to pay a nominal $100 for a two-year membership. Meanwhile, prospective private industry members must choose between a $10,000 and $25,000 membership fee.
According to a search of the Nexis database, only a tiny number of print news outlets have reported on the new initiative. And as local media outlets face extinction or the possibility of being gobbled up by billionaire media moguls, it falls to the larger outlets that remain to lead the way.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board defended the corporate bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in an editorial whitewashing the organization's climate change denial and vindicating their one-sided attacks on renewable energy.
This week, several large technology companies have left ALEC, which connects corporations, including many fossil fuel giants, to legislators. Just weeks after Microsoft ended its ties to the corporate bill mill for its attacks on renewable energy policies, Google chairman Eric Schmidt announced in an interview with NPR's Diane Rehm that his company would not renew its membership with ALEC, stating that ALEC is "literally lying" about climate change and that its policies are "really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place." Facebook, Yelp, and Yahoo quickly followed.
In response to the fallout, The Wall Street Journal defended ALEC and demonized Google in a September 26 editorial, claiming that "ALEC takes no position on the substance of climate change." This echoes ALEC's recent statement refuting the claims of climate change denial and defending their position on climate and renewable energy policies.
But throughout the years, ALEC has made their denial of the scientific consensus on climate change clear. Their climate change model bill -- one of many bills that the legislative members later push through state legislatures -- declares that "human activity" may lead to "possibly beneficial climatic changes," going on to say that climate change influences "may be beneficial or deleterious." Yet consensus reports have found that the negative impacts of global warming will far outweigh any potential benefits. This falls in line with ALEC's stance on the consensus itself -- at its most recent conference, the organization featured the Heartland Institute's Joseph Bast who claimed that "there is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change." The organization also featured a document called "Top 10 myths about global warming" on its website for years, including as a myth that "human activity is causing the earth to warm," according to Forecast the Facts and the Center for Media Democracy. And in their most recent statement on climate change, ALEC continued to undermine the consensus, writing: "Climate change is a historical phenomenon and the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions."
None of this was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal editorial.
The Wall Street Journal went on to defend ALEC's nationwide attacks on renewable energy, another driving force behind Google and others dropping their membership. The Journal derided Google's many investments in wind and solar projects for "kill[ing] birds," an argument that falls flat. Statistics show that renewable energy's impact on bird deaths is miniscule compared to that from buildings, urban light, cell phone towers, and even cats -- and is far outstripped by bird deaths from other energy sources, as seen in this chart by U.S. News and World Report:
Ohio may soon become the first state to freeze its clean energy mandates after a relentless effort from utilities. But the state's major newspapers continue to overlook that the legislators behind the bill are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council -- an organization that connects corporations, including fossil fuel interests, to legislators -- despite repeatedly quoting the organization's members.
Local media outlets across the country published uncritical reports highlighting a conservative influence group's so-called economic competitiveness report, despite criticism of previous editions of the report over its methodology and findings.
On April 15, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) published the 2014 edition of its annual "Rich States, Poor States" economic competitiveness ranking, which claims to be "a forward-looking measure of how each state can expect to perform economically." For the seventh consecutive year, Utah was given the top spot for future economic outlook in 2014; New York was ranked last, and has never risen past 49th place.
Local media outlets quickly picked up the report and mainly discussed their own state's rankings and the rankings of neighboring states. Conservative radio station WOAI in San Antonio, Texas, published a blog detailing the report; including a quote from co-author and Heritage Foundation economist Steven Moore whom WOAI referred to as an "ALEC analyst":
A conservative group says Texas is tops in the country in economic activity today, but the American Legislative Exchange Council warns that the state's economic performance in the future will be rocky, largely because state government is spending too much money.
"That wasn't the good budget," ALEC analyst Steven Moore told 1200 WOAI news about the budget approved by the Legislature in 2012. "Not withstanding [sic] all of the very good things that are happening in Texas, and with the very big increase in the size of the economy."
ALEC ranks Texas no better than 13th nationally in terms of future economic performance.
Despite the uncritical, often glowing, pick-up by local media outlets, ALEC's competitiveness report has received scrutiny in the past, mostly due to evidence showing that economic data does not comport with the results of their study.
Ohio's major newspapers cited sham think tank Buckeye Institute 44 times in six months, promoting the opinions of its conservative allies including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brothers, and big tobacco. Despite these connections being well-documented, every article failed to disclose Buckeye's ties to ALEC and its funding from the Koch brothers and dark money conservatives.
In the wake of growing pressure on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- a shadowy right-wing group dedicated to pushing a conservative agenda at the state level -- and the exposure of its agenda and tactics, will local media finally acknowledge its influence on state politics when reporting on new legislation?
The Guardian reported on December 3 that ALEC has lost the membership of "almost 400 state legislators" and the funding of "more than 60 corporations" due to the organization's connection to controversial "stand your ground" laws, which received scrutiny following the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. In an effort to rebuild those relationships, ALEC is holding its States & Nation policy summit in Washington, D.C., this week. The event includes Republican legislators such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as several governors.
Legislators and businesses from around the country will gather to discuss this year's model legislation, which, as the Center for Media and Democracy has highlighted, will run the gamut of policy areas including legislation "opposing U.S. consumers' rights to know the origin of our food," "undermining workers' rights," "stripping environmental protections," and "limiting patient rights and undermining safety net programs." The last category includes legislation to turn Medicaid into a block grant program, similar to the proposal that Ryan has offered in his budget proposals.
State and local media outlets in the past have often neglected to identify ALEC-influenced legislation and failed to report on their state legislators' involvement with the group. A new wrinkle proposed this year by ALEC, however, directly affects state legislators. The Kansas City Star highlighted a document that was published by The Guardian that, although not adopted, would have required state chairs to take a loyalty oath: "I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first." As Star columnist Barbara Shelly wrote:
What? These are elected officials. They are to put the interests of their states and constituents first. Apparently at some level people realized that, because the draft job description was never adopted. But the very suggestion demonstrates ALEC's eagerness to control these lawmakers.
As legislative sessions begin next year, will state media outlets begin to question legislation offered by their state representatives, especially those who are known to be members of ALEC? Will state media outlets question their ALEC state chairmen about the loyalty oath and whether they are putting the interests of ALEC interests above those of their state and constituents?
ALEC's renewed push has essentially given local media a second chance to identify ALEC's influence in their states and potentially identify the corporate interests behind several pieces of legislation affecting their readers.
Media figures are falsely claiming that Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law played no role in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.
In the wake of Zimmerman's March 2012 killing of Martin, media attention turned to the role of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" (also known as "Shoot First" or "Kill at Will" statute). That law allows a person who believes his life or safety is in danger to use deadly force in self-defense without being required to retreat as long as they are not engaged in illegality and are attacked in a place they have a right to be.The law also allows for a defendant to seek an expedited pretrial hearing on those grounds, and grants people who kill in self-defense immunity from civil lawsuits.
The statute was drafted with the help of the National Rifle Association. After Florida passed the law in 2005, it was adopted as model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council and nearly two dozen states passed similar legislation. Such laws have been found to increase the rate of homicide and have a racially disproportionate impact on black victims.
After Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in the death of Martin, gun violence prevention advocates again highlighted the role of Florida's self-defense law. But some in the media, due to a misunderstanding of the statute's breadth, have falsely claimed that the law played no role in the trial.
On the July 15 edition of CNN's New Day, co-hosts Chris Cuomo and Kate Bolduan agreed that the law played no role in the case.
In fact, Florida's self-defense laws set the framework by which Zimmerman was tried, setting the standard by which the jury would have to determine if Martin's death resulted from the justifiable use of force. Indeed, the jury instructions in the case specifically mention that "If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground" and use deadly force.
The Columbus Dispatch endorsed a proposal to make filing a petition for a referendum harder, only two years after a ballot measure shot down an anti-union law the paper supported.
In 2011, Ohio's Republican majority enacted Senate Bill 5, which drastically restricted the collective bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio. In the aftermath of the bill's passage, a petition was successfully established to get the bill overturned using the referendum process for the following election. The bill was overturned by an overwhelming majority in a victory for Ohio public workers.
The Columbus Dispatch's editorial board came out in favor of the anti-union law, continually reminding readers it supported restricting union's rights. The paper initially took the line that it supported the premise behind the bill but called for a compromise on collective bargaining before the referendum, Issue 2, was established. However, after the deadline to fix the bill passed, the editorial board wrote another editorial in support of Issue 2 and reminded readers the day before the election that it endorsed Issue 2.
Now, two years after the defeat of Issue 2, the editorial board has come out to support a measure that would make it more difficult to get referendums on the ballot. The Dispatch endorsed a recently enacted bill which would limit the amount of time a group has to get an issue on the ballot, giving them only 10 additional days to collect more signatures if the petition is not granted the first time. From the Dispatch:
While one can debate exactly what limits are reasonable, a uniform limit does not violate Ohioans' right to place issues on the ballot, it simply ensures that all are subject to the same rule.
Reasonable limitations on the petition process protect us from chaos.