American Legislative Exchange Council endures liberal firestorm
SALT LAKE CITY — Against the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains, sign-carrying protesters pounced on lawmakers from a number of states as they left a public rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and edged toward air-conditioned buses heading to their hotel.
The legislators attending an annual conference of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, were out for an evening of entertainment. The protesters carried handmade cardboard signs urging them to protect the environment and keep national health care.
This confrontation last week was a single episode in a yearlong assault by a coalition of liberal groups attacking ALEC as a front for corporate lobbying. Critics say the council operates in secrecy and frames “model legislation” that states adopt.
“What ALEC does is hardcore lobbying,” said Bob Edgar, national chairman of Common Cause and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania's Delaware County.
In addition to Common Cause, the coalition includes the Center for Media and Democracy and, in Pennsylvania, Keystone Progress, which will update its ongoing ALEC report this week.
Supporters say ALEC provides good research for legislation, and they dismiss the attacks as partisan, saying liberal groups also propose model bills. ALEC says it does no lobbying. It bills itself as a nonpartisan group, with 2,000 Republican and Democratic lawmakers as members.
“I think the simple fact we believe in free markets, federalism and limited government is always going to be challenged by people who believe government has the solution to every problem,” said Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler County, the Pennsylvania state chairman for ALEC.
The intensity and duration of the coalition's campaign against ALEC are unusual. Dozens of corporate sponsors and lawmaker members have withdrawn from ALEC. Although more than 40 House and Senate members from Pennsylvania still belong to ALEC, 18 legislators, including eight Republicans, have dropped out, the Keystone Progress website states.
General Motors, Walgreens, Coca-Cola and McDonald's are among corporations that have pulled out.
Edgar, in an interview with the Tribune-Review, said Pennsylvania's voter ID law and its stand-your-ground self-defense law were model ALEC bills. Corporate money and some tax money subsidize lawmakers' association dues and trips to national conferences, he contended.
Ellis said numerous groups from AARP to unions and teachers provide model bills for lawmakers to consider.
He said he supported the Castle Doctrine self-defense bill on gun owners' rights before his election seven years ago. Lawmakers passed it last year.
Utah Sen. Curt Bramble, a Provo Republican who serves on ALEC's board, said it doesn't matter what legislation someone proposes to a legislator.
“The question is: What does it look like on final passage?” he asked.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga County, called ALEC a good research and referral asset that compiles data, laws and policy considerations for all states and lawmakers to consider.”
“In terms of a taxpayer-supported front for corporate lobbying, I have seen no evidence to support that claim and, in fact, view this as mere acts of desperation in order to discredit more conservative to moderate viewpoints,” Baker said.
Michael Morrill, executive director of Keystone Progress, said that while ALEC calls itself a nonprofit meant to educate on public policy, when the group writes legislation for lawmakers, it is “crossing the line” into lobbying.
Numerous ALEC meetings in Salt Lake City — the luncheon and working groups — were open to media members. Subcommittee and task force meetings generally don't allow reporters access, although a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune attended a task force meeting.
“I have never had a problem inviting reporters to the meetings,” said Bramble, former Senate majority leader.
Bramble suggests that in Utah at least, a spokesperson in the Occupy movement is active in the anti-ALEC group. He questions who's funding the anti-ALEC campaign.
In a statement on its website, Keystone Progress summarizes its opposition to ALEC:
“The bills written by ALEC cover virtually every area of public policy, including health care, budgeting and tax policy.
“The agenda embedded in these bills is about tilting the system toward those with money and power. Through de-regulation of industry, voter suppression and setting up barriers to direct democracy, ALEC legislation has greatly influenced the political landscape in many states, including Pennsylvania.”
Rep. John Bear, R-Lancaster, responded: “There is no vast conspiracy here that we (in ALEC) have to adopt the corporate line.”
He said he sees little difference between ALEC and the more liberal National Conference of State Legislators. Both accept corporate money to help pay a portion of lawmakers' trips.
The Denver-based NCSL is a bipartisan organization that rarely produces model legislation, said Meagan Dorsch, its director of public relations. “Maybe our operating styles are a little different,” she said.
Dorsch acknowledged that a foundation accepts corporate and nonprofit money, used in 2011 for lawmakers' stipends to attend NCSL conferences.
Ellis said he paid for his trip with campaign donations and his money but received a “scholarship” from ALEC to defray its cost.
Some legislators charge the state for a portion of their dues. Bear, who charged the state $100, said lawmakers are not required to report travel paid by ALEC on financial disclosure statements because it is a professional association.
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.