By David Lias
You’ve probably heard that in late April, the South Dakota Legislature’s Republican-controlled Executive Board approved a measure for the state treasury to cover legislators’ membership fees to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The board decided the state treasury should pay for the $100, two-year memberships for all 105 South Dakota lawmakers and for unlimited out-of-state trips to ALEC meetings by legislators who are members of ALEC committees.
What could be wrong with South Dakota taxpayers footing the bill for legislators’ membership and travel to ALEC meetings?
Especially when you consider that in December 2011, ALEC adopted model legislation, based on a Texas law, addressing the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The ALEC legislation, which has since provided the basis for similar bills submitted in five states, has been promoted as a victory for consumers’ right to know about potential drinking water contaminants.
So, hooray for us taxpayers. Right?
A close reading of the bill, however, reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, for reasons including that they have been deemed trade secrets. Most telling, perhaps, the bill was sponsored within ALEC by ExxonMobil, one of the largest practitioners of fracking — something not explained when ALEC lawmakers introduced their bills back home.
ALEC is described by neutral observers as a “business-backed group,” and has a membership that includes not only corporations, but nearly 2,000 state legislators across the country.
The New York Times wrote a year ago about ALEC’s role in creating model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers, that broadly advance a pro-business, socially conservative agenda. Which would be fine, we suppose, if the organization stopped there.
The newspaper, however, notes that a review of internal ALEC documents shows that drafting legislation is only one facet of a sophisticated operation for shaping public policy at a state-by-state level. The records offer a glimpse of how special interests effectively turn ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they should vote and collaborating on bills affecting hundreds of issues like school vouchers and tobacco taxes.
“I would look at it as education, education, education,” Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, South Dakota state chairwoman for ALEC, told local media recently when defending the decision to use taxpayer dollars to pay lawmakers’ ALEC dues. “Our legislators will get better the more they get to interact with other legislators (from other states).”
Peters makes it sounds like ALEC throws big, happy, friendly meetings and conventions where lawmakers from all states and all political stripes are welcome.
Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, a Democrat from Yankton, who serves as House minority leader, seems to indicate that isn’t so.
“Clearly, they’re a very pro-large corporation advocacy group,” said Hunhoff, in a recent Sioux Falls Argus Leader story. “They have a right to exist. The problem is taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be supporting that.”
The effectiveness of ALEC’s bill-production system is a major part of the group’s appeal to businesses, according the New York Times report. A 2011 membership brochure boasted that ALEC lawmakers typically introduced more than 1,000 bills based on model legislation each year and passed about 17 percent of them.
The dues we South Dakota taxpayers will be paying so that our lawmakers can be educated at ALEC meetings is a drop in the bucket of the organization’s operating budget.
ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members, whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.
Some companies give much more to ALEC, all of it tax deductible: AT&T, Pfizer and Reynolds American each contributed $130,000 to $398,000, according to a copy of ALEC’s 2010 tax returns, obtained by The Times, that included donors’ names, which are normally withheld from public inspection. The returns show that corporate members pay stipends – it calls them “scholarships” – for lawmakers to travel to annual conferences, including a four-day retreat where ALEC spends as much as $250,000 on child care for members’ families.
At the conferences, internal records show, representatives of corporations sit with legislators on eight task forces dealing with issues like telecommunications, health care and product liability. The task forces develop model bills that legislators then introduce in their home states.
Beyond creating model bills, ALEC keeps careful track of state legislation, as well as national issues, and tries to mobilize its lawmaker members to take action. Aides on ALEC task forces keep detailed, color-coded spreadsheets on “good bills” and “problematic bills” in all 50 states, and they regularly send e-mails to alert legislators about ones that ALEC opposes or supports.
Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which teamed up with The Nation magazine to publicize a cache of 800 ALEC model bills last year, said that as of August 2011, all but one of 104 leadership positions within the organization were filled by Republicans and that the policies ALEC promoted were almost uniformly conservative.
“They talk a good game about being bipartisan,” Ms. Graves said, “but the record shows the opposite.”
If Deb Peters and other South Dakota Republican lawmakers want to receive an education from ALEC, that’s fine. But Peters and her GOP cohorts should bear the expense of such lobbying, er, training sessions themselves.
Hunhoff notes that ALEC has a right to exist, and we agree they have a right to lobby and influence. We just think it would be more proper for ALEC reps to come to Pierre to do their lobbying, following state regulations for such activity.
The fact that ALEC is a conservative organization and South Dakota is a conservative state doesn’t justify it. South Dakota lawmakers are accountable to constituents – or at least are supposed to be. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to pay up front to give such a highly partisan group as ALEC even more opportunity to exert its stealthy influence over our state Legislature.