A conservative corporate-backed organization that connects lawmakers with industry insiders to craft ready made laws could lose its non-profit status that allows it to wine and dine lawmakers like Central Oregon’s Gene Whisnant.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, faces a challenge from the Washington D.C-based citizen advocacy group Common Cause, which alleges that ALEC is nothing more than a pipeline from corporate boardrooms to capitol steps.
In April, Common Cause filed a formal complaint with the IRS that, if successful, would strip ALEC of its 501(c)(3) status, which allows the organization, whose backers include the Koch Brothers, Big Pharma, the petroleum industry and legions of other corporate interests, to spend freely, flying lawmakers around the country to attend educational and work conferences. There, lawmakers and corporate representatives develop legislation that is shipped back to lawmakers’ home states. Unlike formal lobbying, those expenses are exempt from disclosure requirements and gift bans aimed at curbing influence peddling.
Among the legislation that ALEC lawmakers have championed in recent years are prison privatization bills, voter I.D. laws, reduction or elimination of public employees’ collective bargaining rights and the now notorious stand-your-ground laws.
The group’s influence has been most profound in states where Republicans enjoy a strong majority in the statehouse and the governor’s office, such as Wisconsin where Gov. Scott Walker’s initiatives closely mirrored ALEC’s model legislation, and Florida where the stand your ground law contributed to the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
Roughly one out of every four members of the Oregon House are listed as members of ALEC. There are no democrats. Earlier this year, Whisnant, who has served as the council’s state chair for more than a half decade, disclosed a full list of legislators who belong to ALEC. In addition to Whisnant, Bend’s Jason Conger and Mike McLane of Powell Butte appear.
In the seven years that he’s been a member, Whisnant said he has taken roughly a dozen trips to attend ALEC conferences, which he described as a chance to interact with other lawmakers and discuss approaches to common issues.
He called the notion that the group serves a shadowy corporate front “baloney.”
“I’m very proud of it. Like other organizations, it’s a place to exchange ideas,” said Whisnant, who likened it to another national forum, the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).
In fact, added Whisnant, ALEC is the more effective of the two organizations because its meetings produce draft legislation that can be brought back to statehouses around the nation.
However, there’s a key distinction between NCSL’s mission and that of the corporate-backed ALEC.
It’s one that NCSL’s vice president, Oregon state Senator Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, laid out early this year for The Oregonian’s Michelle Cole. Starr told Cole, who covers the Oregon legislature, that the NCSL does not offer outside interests a seat at the table when its members are developing policy initiatives. That role is limited to lawmakers and staff.
“The only ones that have the vote are legislators,” Starr told the paper.
In contrast, ALEC’s corporate representatives have equal standing with legislators at ALEC, according to numerous published reports, including an expose of the heretofore secretive organization by the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine last year.
“I think corporate players sitting side-by-side with ALEC legislative members making decisions—that’s moving beyond having interest groups going into someone’s office and lobbying. Paying for the trip to come to a meeting to sit down and develop legislation together, that doesn’t quite pass the smell test,” said Janice Thompson, Common Causes’ outgoing executive director in Oregon.
Moreover, ALEC’s board has veto power over any model legislation that is developed.
However, there is no obligation for legislative members who pay a few hundred dollars a year in dues to take the legislation back to their home states. Whisnant said he’s only introduced a few bills from ALEC, one of those was a government transparency bill. Other bills, like a proposed law that would require state agencies to fill a vacant job within a set period of time or eliminate the job, have not made it to a floor vote. Whisnant said that’s a reflection of Oregon’s political dynamic that has resulted in a nearly evenly split legislature where bills require bi-partisan support to move.
There is still value in ALEC’s principles, said Whisnant who describes them as Jeffersonian free market and limited-government initiatives. Putting those ideas down on paper can lead to better government, he said. In fact, Whisnant said a member of the state’s prison task force recently asked him to talk to the House GOP caucus about ways to control prison spending. That request came in part because of Whisnant’s experience with ALEC and the organization’s work on prison privatization.
“I don’t know who can be against individual freedom, free markets and federalism. That’s (ALEC’s) mission statement and I’m for those things,” Whisnant said.
Other lawmakers, however, aren’t quite as assured that ALEC is a worthwhile use of time. At least one local lawmaker said he wasn’t aware that he was even a member of ALEC.
Jason Conger was listed as a member of the organization’s social justice task force by Common Cause, and Whisnant included him on the list of Oregon’s ALEC members. However, Conger said he has never attended an ALEC meeting or met with a representative from the organization.
“I want to be clear, I don’t have any opinion about ALEC at all. I’ve seen it become this fulcrum for some kind of political imagery, and that hasn’t really played into my decision at all. I just don’t look at them to be a source of information,” said Conger, a republican who represents a district that is nearly evenly split between democrats and republicans in Bend.
Sen. Chris Telfer, who represents Deschutes County, has a similarly ambivalent attitude toward ALEC. While she doesn’t see anything untoward about legislators interacting with special interests, Telfer said she would never introduce a bill that was drafted by an outside agency. And while she agrees with many of ALEC’s basic principles, Telfer said she prefers to have constituents drive her legislative agenda.
However, when it came time to reach out to corporate donors in the May primary election, Telfer found that she had been outflanked by her GOP challenger, former House Majority Leader Tim Knopp, who was able to tap ALEC benefactors, including Koch Industries and RJ Reynolds both of which gave generously to Knopp and helped him to outspend Telfer nearly 3-1 en route to a landslide victory.
Knopp, who serves as the executive director of the Central Oregon Builder’s Association, said those contributions don’t make him in any way beholden to those corporate interests. In fact, Knopp said he has no intention of joining ALEC or otherwise championing the organization’s legislative agenda if he is elected in November when he faces Democrat Geri Hauser.
“Money and politics can corrupt, but it’s up to individuals to keep that at arm’s distance. I’m saying those that contributed are not getting anything other than a thank you letter in the mail,” Knopp said.
Regardless, if Common Cause is successful, Whisnant and other GOP lawmakers who might want to thank some of those donors in person and talk shop, will need to do it on their own dime, or at least let the public know who is pulling the strings.