“ALEC” is the American Legislative Exchange Council, and it may be the most powerful organization you (probably) never heard of. There’s a good chance ALEC already has impacted your life. And if it hasn’t yet, give it time.

ALEC describes itself as an organization that “provides a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public policy issues.” Others have called it a means for powerful corporations and interest groups to influence legislation to enrich themselves at the public’s expense.

ALEC was founded in 1973 by some of the same conservative activists who also founded the Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Political Action Caucus (CPAC) and other right-wing institutions. It is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means it is exempt from federal taxes and many kinds of disclosure. The current membership includes more than 2,000 state legislators from all 50 states, which is nearly one-third of all sitting state legislators. The legislators pay annual dues of $50.

ALEC also has about 300 corporate and other private sector members, which pay annual dues of between $7,000 and $25,000. The private sector members also pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into ALEC in grants and other donations. Many non-member trade organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the American Petroleum Institute make donations to ALEC of undisclosed amounts. Obviously, the big-money donors fund nearly all of ALEC’s operations.

What do the big donors get for their money?

Very simply — ALEC generates “model” bills that are beneficial to the big donors. The bills are given to the legislative members, who may tweak them a bit before introducing them to the legislature. Hundreds of nearly identical ALEC bills are introduced in the nation’s statehouses every year, and many become law. This influence is not limited to the states, however, as legislators in the U.S. Congress sometimes adapt ALEC bills at the federal level.

ALEC also sponsors conferences, often in luxury resorts, in which the private sector members and the legislators meet, ostensibly to discuss issues and work out practical solutions. Legislators often pay for the trips with taxpayer funds.

But in fact, the “solutions” are worked out in advance, by ALEC’s secret task forces and its big donors. The legislators attend workshops in which the model bills are presented to them by corporate representatives. The legislators often receive tips on how to sell the bills to their non-ALEC colleagues back home.

Let’s look at specific examples. Insurance companies wanted off the hook from mesothelioma claims, so ALEC came forward with a model bill to protect corporations from asbestos exposure liability. The bill quickly was introduced in Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and at the federal level. The Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act would require asbestos victims and their families to publicly disclose all manner of personal information before receiving compensation. This information could be used to deny credit or employment and make the victims vulnerable to identity theft. The point, obviously, is to intimidate people from filing claims. No such disclosure is required of companies that exposed employees and customers to asbestos.

In fact, liability protection is a major focus of ALEC bills. As of August 2013, this year at least 71 bills crafted by ALEC have been introduced around the country that make it harder to hold corporations accountable for death or injury. Many have misleading names, such as the "Full and Fair Noneconomic Damages Act," introduced in two states, that limits the amount a corporation has to pay to compensate people it has injured.

Here’s another example — so far this year, 139 ALEC bills have been introduced that promote for-profit education at the expense of public schools. Vouchers are still being sold to the public as the solution for improving education, but in fact where they have been tried — Milwaukee has had a voucher system since 1990, for example — there is no objective measure showing that voucher students receive a better education. But today, every year, billions of taxpayer dollars are being funneled away from public schools and into a private, for-profit education industry.

Other recent ALEC initiatives have weakened employee rights, reduced environmental protection, and cut back investment in renewable energy (that might someday replace oil and gas).

If you want to know if your legislators are ALEC-friendly, Moyers & Company has an interactive map you can consult. This usurpation of democracy won’t stop until citizens take notice and make it stop.