Late last month, 17 newly elected Wyoming legislators attended a three-day meeting at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. The event was sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
On Dec. 3, the nonprofit citizen-lobbyist organization Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy released a report that said Wyoming is among the top 10 states in the amount of corporate “scholarships” lawmakers receive to attend ALEC meetings.
According to Common Cause accounts, the legislators pay $50 per year to belong to ALEC and in return receive free travel to and from and lodging at meetings where they are wined and dined by various corporation representatives and are cajoled into introducing ALEC model bills when they get home.
Common Cause refers to the scholarships as corporate donor “slush funds.” The organization is challenging ALEC’s nonprofit, tax-free status with the Internal Revenue Service on grounds it is a lobby and not a charity.
Legislators who are ALEC members say the organization meetings are worthwhile because they have good speakers. The organization, they said, is conservative and pro business but otherwise similar to the National Conference on State Legislatures and the Council on State Governments.
The state, though, pays dues and expenses for legislators to attend NCSL and CSG meetings. And the information is made public in the state Legislative Service Office’s annual report.
ALEC claims to have 2,000 legislators as members but does not release their names.
Common Cause has assembled incomplete lists from the states totaling 1,300 names, said Nick Surgey, the group’s chief counsel.
Surgey said ALEC offers such amenities as cigar night and free drinks. Until recently, the National Rifle Association sponsored clay pigeon shooting events during ALEC meetings.
‘Hiding in plain sight’
“It would almost be funny if it were not so outrageous,” Surgey said. “It is the epitome of what people imagine lobbying is.”
ALEC tends to do better in states with strong Republican bases and where there is a tight partnership between the public and private sectors, he said.
“We know more than we ever knew about ALEC,” Surgey said. “It’s a shadowy but incredibly powerful organization. They’ve managed to avoid public scrutiny for nearly 40 years. It’s almost as if they were hiding in plain sight.”
ALEC officials, he said, used to conduct briefings in the White House during former President Ronald Reagan’s time in office.
The “huge danger” of this group, he said, is that non-ALEC legislators aren’t aware they are voting ALEC bills because the bills’ sponsors don’t tell them.
Some of these bills are complicated, “nuanced” and difficult for legislators to fully understand, Surgey said.
With ALEC, Surgey said, it all happens in secret, at a luxury resort during a conference rather than in a state house.
Jim King is the head of the University of Wyoming’s Political Science Department. He said ALEC appears to be a legislative think tank similar to NCSL.
“The major difference is in the ideological perspective of ALEC and that it has known corporate financial backers [with conservative leanings, obviously]” he wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune.
“It would seem that legislators’ interactions with ALEC — membership in the association, attending its meetings, drawing upon its staff resources, and the like — should be reported as legislators report their interactions with other lobbying organizations,” King added.
As for whether ALEC is a dangerous organization, as Surgey suggested, King said that depends on a person’s philosophical or ideological perspective.
“Liberals see ALEC and similar organizations as part of a conservative movement (some would say “conspiracy”); conservatives see ALEC and similar organizations as helping promoting a governing philosophy that they share,” King wrote.
Rep. Pete Illoway, R-Cheyenne, who is retiring from the state Legislature after 14 years, has been the state’s legislative chairman for ALEC.
Regarding the state’s high ranking in ALEC “scholarships,” Illoway said he has done a pretty good job of collecting corporations to cover the expenses of legislators who attend the conferences.
“I think ALEC is a pretty good organization. When you talk about less government and letting the state do their own thing and free markets, what’s wrong with that?” he said.
Illoway said major corporations that donate to ALEC may also be giving money to NCSL and CSG.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, has been an ALEC member for eight years. He attended last month’s meeting in Washington.
“The press always gives ALEC a bad rap,” Zwonitzer said. “Some of the speakers are very pro-business and I don’t always agree, but they have some great people.”
Zwonitzer said a standout at the Washington conference was a speaker from the American Enterprise Institute, a top free-trade, free-enterprise think tank.
“A lot of speakers talked about how Republican and conservative ideals could get the country back on track and get away from this capital cronyism,” he said.
Zwonitzer said a couple of protesters tried to get in and start a ruckus during the November meeting.
“I don’t know why. I’ve never seen any kind of weird or underhanded stuff go on,” he said.
Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is also an ALEC member. He said if the list of Wyoming legislators who belong to ALEC isn’t in the public domain, it should be.
“The reason I have gone is they have really good speakers who talk about issues on the public and the private side,” he said.
Bebout, a former state House speaker, said he cosponsored an ALEC bill in the late 1990s that dealt with the Kyoto Protocol.
Another ALEC bill he introduced that would have required a super majority vote on budgets didn’t go over well.
“I’ve gotten some good ideas from ALEC and some bad,” Bebout said.
One ALEC model bill that passed the Legislature and was adopted by voters in November was the constitutional amendment on health care reform. It protects people from being compelled to participate in any health care system.
An ALEC bill also passed the state Legislature in 2011. It limits the potential liability of a corporation that merges with another corporation that has asbestos claims against it.
The Legislature has rejected other ALEC bills dealing with elections and immigration, said Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center.
Neal said his group would like to see the Legislature require full disclosure on its website of all contributions the legislators receive.
“I think these trips can have some value, but if people see the reporting, it will give them a better way to measure which special interest groups are influencing state legislators,” Neal said.
It is important, he added, that people know ALEC is largely a corporate-funded group financed by the largest corporations, like Koch Industries.
The Wyoming League of Women Voters adopted a resolution earlier that calls for transparency in the origin of proposed legislation.
“The people of Wyoming and other legislators need to know where the legislation is coming from so they can better understand it,” spokeswoman Marguerite Herman of Cheyenne said.
The resolution applies to all groups, she added.
Kaitlyn Buss is the communications director for ALEC. She said in an email that ALEC stands for free-market enterprise and job creation, “putting us at odds with these questionable ‘good government’ groups like Common Cause and the Equality State Policy Center, which are nothing more than liberal special interest groups strongly opposed to ALEC’s free market and limited government message.”
The Common Cause reports, the email added, “are just ideologically driven tactics meant to distract from the very real work of getting Americans back to work. That’s our first and only priority.”