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Protesters Crash ALEC Conference to Resist Bill Criminalizing Pipeline Activists

Protesters with Extinction Rebellion ATX were briefly detained and released after disrupting ALEC’s annual conference.

Progressive groups hosted an "Unwelcome Reception" rally to greet ALEC legislators and corporate lobbyists outside the JW Marriott in downtown Austin on August 14, 2019.

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Four protesters with the Austin chapter of Extinction Rebellion were briefly detained and released Thursday after three activists disrupted a private lunch session inside the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Austin, where the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is holding its annual conference this week. Two other activists disrupted the event on the hotel’s fourth and second floors.

Inside a private ballroom, the activists chanted and dropped a banner reading “People & Planet Before Profit” to protest ALEC’s role in developing a so-called “critical infrastructure” bill passed during Texas’s last legislation session which charges those who damage or “impair or interrupt” operations of oil and gas facilities with a felony.

Video courtesy of Echo Colón, Extinction Rebellion ATX.

ALEC is a corporate-backed group that is the most prolific organization in the country at writing model legislation, which right-wing politicians often use as templates for the bills they propose — and often pass — in state legislatures. During ALEC’s annual conference, legislators and corporate lobbyist members from across the country will sit on task forces designed to review and vote on conservative model legislation.

Protesters erected an inflatable “fat cat” outside the JW Marriott in downtown Austin on August 14, 2019.

The Texas “critical infrastructure” bill, which is set to take effect in September, will criminalize damage to oil and gas facilities under construction with a third-degree felony. Violators who simply disrupt operations or who enter property with the intent to damage it will face a state jail felony. The ALEC-created model legislation on which the Texas bill is based has already passed in eight other state legislatures after high-profile protests at Standing Rock, and has been introduced in at least 13 other states. Now, the administration is taking the legislation to the federal level.

“As the climate crisis worsens, ALEC and its corporations are passing anti-protest bills such as [House Bill] 3557 … because these corporations know that they have to get as many pipelines through as possible because of the backlash due to climate change,” said Alex Norton, a member of Extinction Rebellion ATX who disrupted the private session Thursday.

Anne White Hat, a leader of the campaign to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, discusses her charges under the state’s critical infrastructure law outside the JW Marriott in downtown Austin on August 14, 2019.

Extinction Rebellion’s protest against ALEC’s “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” legislation comes as watchdog organizations Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and Common Cause released a new report this week comprehensively detailing ALEC’s influence in Texas. The report identified 58 Texas legislators with known ties to ALEC — the largest of any state’s delegation, representing almost a third of the Texas Legislature. In fact, the authors of both the House and Senate versions of the recent critical infrastructure bill both attended ALEC conferences in recent years.

“These corporations know that they have to get as many pipelines through as possible because of the backlash due to climate change.”

In addition to its model critical infrastructure bill, ALEC was also behind many preemption efforts in Texas in which the state blocks or overrules local ordinances and decisions. ALEC has targeted Texans’ decisions to expand local gun safety regulations and to enact local paid sick-leave ordinances. In 2015, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 40, an ALEC model bill that preempted the city of Denton’s fracking ban ordinance and stripped Texas municipalities’ ability to regulate oil and gas drilling at the local level. (This reporter was a resident of Denton and has chronicled the issue at length.)

Moreover, nearly all of ALEC’s funding comes from private corporations and corporate foundations, with the infamous petrochemical billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, serving as some of the organization’s largest donors. Among the organization’s main Texas backers are BNSF Railway, Energy Future Holdings, McLane Company and VISTRA Energy, according to the CMD and Common Cause report.

Among the workshops ALEC is holding this week are two focused on preparing its members for how to more effectively gerrymander their districts in 2021. It’s workshops are entitled “What is Redistricting and Why Must We Do It?” and “How to Survive Redistricting.” The organization will also consider a draft policy statement in defense of the Electoral College and specifically opposing the National Popular Vote campaign to award Electoral College votes to the winner of the popular vote.

Likewise, ALEC and its local offshoot, the American City County Exchange, will consider model ordinances and resolutions that would prohibit paid “release time” for union activity by public employees, support Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s privatization scheme to expand school vouchers at the federal level, oppose Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, and oppose sanctuary cities, among other issues.

About 100 people gathered in front of Austin’s JW Marriott on Wednesday to protest ALEC’s preemption of Texans’ voices from across the state. Groups including Progress Texas, the Texas Sierra Club, Extinction Rebellion ATX, Workers Defense Project, Public Citizen Texas, Austin AFSCME, Texas AFL-CIO, ADAPT of Texas and United We Dream rallied outside the hotel.

Heiwa Salovitz of ADAPT of Texas spoke during the rally about ALEC’s attacks on Medicare and efforts to roll back the Americans with Disabilities Act outside the JW Marriott in downtown Austin on August 14, 2019.

CMD recently revealed that former ALEC national chairman and current board member Republican State Rep. Phil King arranged a “confidential border tour” on Monday just before the start of annual meeting in which legislative board members were briefed by Texas Department of Public Safety officers and flown in Chinook helicopters to sites along the border. State Representative King was also the primary author of ALEC model legislation gutting Texas cities’ regulatory authority over oil and gas operations.

ALEC is already holding closed-door sessions and discussions on border security in the run-up to its meeting of its Task Force on Homeland Security on Friday. While CMD notes that the taskforce’s private-sector members are kept secret, it obtained documents showing that “private prison giant CoreCivic had a seat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Public Safety and Elections Task Force, before it became a stand-alone task force in 2016, as well as ALEC’s Private Sector Executive Committee.” Both CoreCivic and GEO Group have long been financial backers of ALEC, according to CMD.

Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar speaks about ALEC’s role in boosting private prison companies’ profits outside the JW Marriott in downtown Austin on August 14, 2019.

“ALEC has promoted far-right agendas on the environment, on health care, on disability rights, on voting rights, on immigration and on other issues that we address every day in a quest to build a better Texas,” said Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay during the rally outside the JW Marriott Wednesday. “ALEC is a secretive partisan shadow group. And this week, ALEC is in Austin, Texas, working behind closed doors to hatch more bad bills.”

ALEC’s media relations staffers have previously refused to issue a credential to this reporter to attend its meetings on the grounds that Truthout is a nonprofit organization.

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