Two Tennessee Democratic legislators have resigned from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which this summer is the target of a national campaign from critics contending it has become a secretive, corporate-controlled lobby for conservative causes.
Tennessee Republican legislators attending ALEC’s national convention in Salt Lake City last week, however, say the organization has made them better lawmakers by enhancing an exchange of ideas and information between the public sector and the private sector.
“It’s an organization that promotes the principles on which this country was founded — free markets and free enterprise,” said Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, deputy speaker of the state House, a member of ALEC since 1989 and a member of its national public sector board of directors.
ALEC is largely financed by its private sector members. Two groups leading the anti-ALEC campaign — Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and Color of Change — say 30 major corporations have recently abandoned membership, including General Motors and Walgreens last week. Others quitting range from Walmart and Coca-Cola to Amazon and Miller Coors.
There are Tennessee groups critical of ALEC as well.
“We think Tennessee legislators are being bought and paid for by an exclusive network of corporate lobbyists and special interest groups,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action.
ALEC holds periodic meetings around the country where legislators from all 50 states and private sector representatives meet in “task force” session to develop model legislation on various topics. Critics say the events are at luxury motels with ample entertainment opportunities.
ALEC provides “scholarships” to some legislators to cover their expenses, typically to recently elected legislators. In Tennessee, many travel at state expenses — as they may for other national legislator-oriented groups such as the National Conference of State Legislators and the Council of State Governments.
Legislators say the other groups, however, do not develop “model legislation” that can then be pushed in their home states. Instead, they offer general information in workshops and perhaps sample bills of how states have addressed different issues. And there’s another difference.
“ALEC is more conservative,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, who attended last week’s ALEC gathering and has attended others as well. He has also traveled to NCSL conventions.
ALEC may have a model bill on a given topic, he said, but that model is typically transformed substantially, or perhaps even ignored, before being introduced in a state legislature. Brooks successfully sponsored a bill authorizing operation of for-profit “virtual schools” in a state, but he said an ALEC model has little to do with the final version.
McDaniel said those “out to destroy ALEC” are “extremists, far to the left.” Corporate sponsors who have withdrawn “caved in to these very liberal groups,” he said.
Reps. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, and David Shepard, D-Dickson, have a different view of ALEC. Both said they joined ALEC at the urging of Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, the ALEC state chairman, and other Republican legislators in Tennessee who they respect — including McDaniel. But the more they learned about ALEC, they said, the more they disliked it.
Shepard said he joined and paid his first year’s dues in 2010 — $100 — but never actually attended a meeting, then sent repeated notice of his resignation this year. Armstrong said he was initially impressed with the group’s professed bipartisanship and became a member of the ALEC task force on health care.
But Armstrong said ALEC changed from generally supporting a national solution to providing health care, after passage of the federal Affordable Health Care Act. It began backing state-level efforts such as a model Health Care Freedom Act, which says states can ignore the federal law, and the Health Care Compact, which calls for states to take over all federal health programs, including Medicare. Armstrong said he stopped paying dues in 2010 and, after discovering he was still listed as a member, sending a resignation notice earlier this year.
“They make their decisions based on politics and contributions rather than on best practices or best solutions to problems,” Armstrong said. “Their agenda has become very self-serving and very partisan … It’s extremist.”
Tennessee’s Republican-majority Legislature has approved a Health Care Freedom Act, but not a Health Care Compact. The compact bill passed the Senate last session, but failed in the House.
Armstrong said he was also alienated by ALEC’s backing of legislation requiring a government-issued photo identification for voting, which he considers “voter suppression” targeting the elderly and minority voting rights, and a “stand your ground” law adopted in states including Tennessee and Florida, which broadens self-defense statues to allow the use of deadly force in more situations.
Those two issues have been focal points of the national criticism of ALEC. The “stand your ground” law got national attention after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Besides CMD and Color Of Change, Common Cause has joined in the attack on ALEC by formally seeking an Internal Revenue Service ruling on whether ALEC should lose its status as a tax-exempt organization. The contention is that ALEC violates rules against lobbying legislators. ALEC disputes the claim and McDaniel agrees.
There is no specific legislation being proposed before a state legislative body in session, he said.
“If you call supporting free market principle and less government intervention lobbying, then well, maybe,” McDaniel said. “But that’s not what generally you think of as lobbying.”
In at least one state, Wisconsin, a complaint has been filed claiming that ALEC’s “scholarships” for travel expenses to conventions violate a ban on lobbyist gifts to legislators. Tennessee also has a general ban on gifts from lobbyists to legislators, but there is an explicit exemption in Tennessee law for out-of-state travel expenses provided by “a recognized organization of elected or appointed state government officials.”
That exemption was added to the state’s 2006 revision of ethics laws with the support of ALEC public sector chair Todd, who noted that it applies to other groups as well.
Tennessee’s private sector state chair is Patricia Cannon, who lists a Tullahoma address in her registration as a lobbyist for Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, a pharmaceutical company. She previously was registered to lobby in Tennessee for Allergan, Inc. When reached at the Salt Lake meeting, Cannon declared she would not speak to a reporter, suggested a look at the ALEC website and promptly terminated the call.
Kaitlyn Bass, the designated spokeswoman on ALEC’s website, did not return a reporter’s call.
ALEC does not publicly disclose its corporate or public membership. CMD, however, has set up a website called “ALEC Exposed” that lists private and public sector members collected by other means — along with about 800 “model bills” approved by ALEC over a period of several years.
The group’s Tennessee listing has 32 current state legislators and two former legislators, all Republicans except Armstrong and Shepard. Tennessee’s legislative travel records, however, show two other Democrats — Sens. Ophelia Ford and Reginald Tate, both of Memphis — as attending ALEC functions in other states at state expenses.
Todd said the group is bipartisan with about 45 percent of members nationwide Democrats and the national chairmanship rotating annually between a Democrat and a Republican.
Tate said in an interview that he initially attended an ALEC meeting “out of curiosity” and has remained a member because “it’s good to get a different perspective, even if I often disagree.” Tate said he has faced criticism from “people who were a lot less courteous than the folks at ALEC.”
The “ALEC Exposed” website also lists more than 50 legislators who have withdrawn from ALEC since the campaign of criticism began — not including Armstrong and Shepard. All those listed are Democrats.”When I joined, I thought they were bipartisan,” said Armstrong. “I think they’ve gotten extremely partisan now … They’re lobbying social agendas.”
Todd said he believes resigning legislators “caved in to these left-wing groups” that have been pressuring Democrats to leave ALEC.
Earlier this year, ALEC disbanded the task force that produced model legislation on voter photo ID and “stand your ground.”
McDaniel said that the organization was also rewriting its bylaws and mission statement at the Salt Lake City meeting. In his own opinion, he said, ALEC had gotten off track by getting into social issues.
“ALEC is refocusing on its founding principles — Jeffersonian principles, free enterprise, less government,” McDaniel said. “Those social issues are not part of ALEC’s mission.”
Todd said that “maybe 5 percent” of ALEC’s efforts in the past anyway.
“We get blamed for a lot of things, but our interest has always been on economic issues,” said Todd. “This (anti-ALEC effort) is all a political game because the elections are coming up.”
The sponsors of Tennessee voter ID law say they were pushing the idea long before it ever became an ALEC model, though it did not pass until last year.
“I think they got their model from me,” quipped Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, Senate sponsor of the measure and a frequent attendee of ALEC events.