TN legislators attending ALEC: Nothing sinister here, despite claims to contrary

Michael Collins has a report on last week’s ALEC meeting in Washington and the Tennessee legislators who attended. Extended excerpt:

State Rep. Ryan Haynes has been to three conferences hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council — enough for him to feel confident the conservative group is not the sinister, corporate-driven lobbying force portrayed by its critics.

But as the Knoxville Republican and other state legislators gathered with top business executives at a Washington hotel this week for the group’s winter policy summit, dozens of protesters were marching outside against what they say is an unsavory alliance of government and corporate interests.

Beating on plastic tubs and blasting bullhorns, the marchers carried signs accusing the group, known as ALEC, of a long list of sins. “Lower Wages Brought to You By ALEC,” one of the placards read. “ALEC Shoots First…& Hits Real People,” declared another.

“The public is completely in the dark about ALEC,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., one of the group’s many detractors, said in a conference call with reporters. “They are very good at what they do. However, it is not in the public interest. And that should concern each and every person.”

Some 900 people — roughly half of them state legislators from around the country, including about a dozen from Tennessee — attended the organization’s three-day winter meeting in Washington, which concluded Friday. ALEC bills itself as supporting limited government, free markets and federalism.

At the summit, lawmakers sat down with private-sector representatives in task force meetings and debated model legislation on everything from the environment and energy to commerce, health care and international relations. Model legislation discussed at the group’s meetings is often used as a template for new laws in various states.

Lawmakers say participation in ALEC better equips them to do their jobs because it gives them a place to swap ideas with legislators from across the country.

But ALEC’s task force meetings are closed to the public, and the group refuses to release the names of its corporate participants — secrecy that critics say enables big business to cozy up to lawmakers behind closed doors and exert too much influence over public policy.

Haynes and other Tennessee state legislators who attended this week’s summit insist that perception is wrong.

“That is nowhere near accurate whatsoever,” said state Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House Finance Committee. Sargent said he has been attending ALEC gatherings since 1998.

Deputy House Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, said coming to ALEC events is “like coming to the trough of conservatism.”

“Everything we do” is based on the group’s support of the three tenets that include limited government, said McDaniel, who served as ALEC’s national chairman in 2001 and still sits on the group’s board of directors.

McDaniel and other Tennessee legislators active in ALEC see nothing untoward about sitting down with business interests to work on policy and potential legislation. On the contrary, they argue, the meetings are beneficial because they allow lawmakers to tap a reservoir of private-sector expertise that often is not available in state government.

…On the eve of this week’s summit, a report published in The Guardian newspaper in London again raised questions about ALEC’S activities.

Citing leaked documents, the newspaper reported that some 400 state legislators terminated their membership with ALEC over the past two years and more than 60 corporate sponsors withdrew funding. The exodus was attributed to some of the group’s controversial policy positions, such as its push for “stand-your-ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of George Zimmerman’s shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

The paper also reported the contents of a draft agreement proposed for ALEC’s chairs in each of the 50 states, including a requirement that they put the interests of the organization above those of the voters who elected them.

ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said the draft agreement was a working document only and was never adopted. Tennessee lawmakers at the summit said they would never have agreed to such a pact.

“The only place my loyalties lie are with the citizens of the 14th District,” Haynes said. “That’s who I’m elected to represent.”

McDaniel acknowledged the group may have strayed at times too far from its core principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. The board has been trying to steer the group away from social issues and other divisive issues unrelated to those core principles, he said.

“Those things should be left to people somewhere else, not in ALEC,” McDaniel said.

After “taking it on the chin” for a few years, ALEC is making an effort to be more transparent, said state Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro.

The group has hired a five-member public relations team this year to handle press inquiries and public outreach. Task force meetings and business meetings remain off-limits to the press, but reporters were allowed to attend workshops and plenary sessions at this week’s summit.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” said Ketron, the group’s newly chosen Tennessee co-chairman, along with state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville.