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ALEC summit in Pittsburgh to attract lawmakers, controversy

| Thursday, May 5, 2016, 7:24 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Lisa B. Nelson, CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council, talks with Tribune-Review staff members Thursday, May 5, 2016, at Trib's office in the North Side.

Hundreds of U.S. lawmakers will descend on downtown Pittsburgh Friday to swap policy and review “model” laws drafted by one of the most influential and controversial legislative advocacy machines in America.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based libertarian organization, expects about 400 state lawmakers to attend its one-day spring task force summit in the Omni William Penn Hotel.

“We don't go into the states and lobby. We develop model policy,” said ALEC CEO Lisa B. Nelson, who took the helm about a year and a half ago, after working in public and governmental affairs for Visa, AOL Time Warner and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Participants at the private, no-press event will discuss hot-button issues such as public pension and tax reform. They'll also hear from panelists of industry representatives and research analysts promoting examples of legislation drafted by ALEC's task forces in areas including energy, criminal justice and economic development.

Labor and other groups have said they plan to stage protests Friday, accusing the group of bringing together corporate interests, lobbyists and lawmakers to the detriment of workers.

“Working people in Pennsylvania deserve a legislature that represents everyone, not just corporate lobbyists and wealthy donors,” said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.

State Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, said he plans to attend the gathering. Ellis said that since joining ALEC in 2005, he has found “dealing with legislators from other states to be invaluable.”

ALEC bills itself as the largest “voluntary membership organization of state legislators in the United States, dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” Its more than 2,000 members pay a fee starting at $7,000.

During its 43-year history, ALEC has become known for its effectiveness in shaping policy as much as its reputation among critics on the left as an allegedly dark-money-fueled, secretive policymaking arm pushing boiler-plate laws underwritten by special interests and industry representatives.

“We're providing a resource to legislators so that they can seek policy that has been vetted, but they're not going to take policies just because they're there,” ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said. “They're going to take the right policies that are consistent with their communities and use them or not, or use parts of them or not.”

In regards to funding, Ellis pointed to groups such as the liberal-leaning National Conference of State Legislatures and moderate Council of State Governments — “They're all supported by corporations,” he said.

“ALEC, of course, is not the only interest group to cloak national concerns in state regalia, but it is the biggest,” said Meg Mott, professor of political thought at Marlboro College in Vermont. “The piece that is most confusing is that ALEC presents itself as a champion of federalism even though they override local solutions to local problems with a mass market product.”

In response to backlash, ALEC underwent a major shift in focus in 2012, moving away from social issues such as gun regulations and voting rights toward a strict free-market approach to resolving issues.

“We got back to basics. We got rid of anything having to do with elections, voting, firearms or social issues at large,” Meierling said. “The opposition made us better and they made us stronger because they made us focus,” Meierling said.

Said Ellis, “Social issues are always divisive, but Jeffersonian principles and free-market economy is uniting, so I thought it was a good move.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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