TWIN FALLS • A deep-pocketed conservative puppet master controlling Idaho’s legislators? Or just another forum for lawmakers?
It depends on who you ask.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, brings corporate representatives and state legislators together to draft what the council calls “model legislation” on current issues facing states, such as school funding, jail privatization and oil and gas exploration. Those lawmakers then have the option of bringing that model legislation back to their states, tweaking it to fit their statutes and introducing it in their legislatures.
In recent months, activists have amped up criticism against ALEC for allowing corporations to have a seat at the table and influence legislation that might benefit corporate interests.
But, Magic Valley ALEC members say, the organization has no more sway than any other lobbyist or legislative group.
Members, but Not Active
According to ALEC Exposed, 16 current or former Idaho legislators have ties to the organization. Four are from the Magic Valley: Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; retiring Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert; and Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
But there’s a difference being an ALEC member and being active in ALEC. Cameron said although he’s been a member on and off for most of his 20 years in office, he attended only one ALEC function. He receives their newsletters, but doesn’t always read them.
Bedke said he isn’t sure if his membership is still active. He, too, has been to only one function. Stevenson pays attention to water and energy analysis that ALEC releases, but little else.
But both Bedke and Stevenson said ALEC gives lawmakers an insight into how other states address problems.
“The concept, I think, is probably valid,” Bedke said. When writing laws similar to those in other states, “There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel.”
Patrick is more active in the organization, bringing ALEC-inspired legislation on asbestos liability to Idaho’s 2012 legislative session. The new law excuses businesses of liability if they’ve acquired other companies that once produced asbestos.
According to ALEC Exposed, past pieces of legislation have their roots in the group, such as laws on voter identification and public employee collective bargaining.
ALEC’s model legislation is similar to what other legislative groups do, such as the National Conference of State Legislatures and Council of State Governments-WEST, both of which count Idaho lawmakers among their ranks.
Bill influence doesn’t come from just legislative organizations.
In the 2012 session, plenty of lobbyist groups offered language to bills. The National Rifle Association and Idaho Water Users Association both suggested tweaks to the Right to Hunt amendment, which will appear on the ballot in November.
Insurance companies also weighed in on a proposed health insurance exchange bill, which never received a hearing in the house. Had it passed, it would have directly affected the companies.
Travis Manning, executive director for the Common Sense Democracy Foundation Of Idaho, said the big difference between ALEC and similar organizations is ALEC’s reach.
ALEC counts about 2,000 state lawmakers among its members, and corporations have an equal say in the nonprofit’s model legislation.
“I think it’s undue collaboration between corporations and legislators,” said Manning, who is running for a House seat as a Democrat in District 10. “It leaves the state citizens largely out of this democratic process of lawmaking, and I think that’s unfair.”
There’s a good incentive for lawmakers to listen to those corporate representatives, Manning added.
“If they are able to get those laws passed and things, corporations give them big bucks for their campaign donations,” he said.
But contributions from like-minded lobbyists aren’t uncommon, Patrick said.
“You support the people who you know they support your issues,” he said.
Patrick said he understood why the public is wary of corporations contributing so much to the organization. But, he said, corporations employ a lot of people, so it’s valid to give them a say.
“It’s easy to beat up on the big guys, and sometimes they deserve it,” Patrick said. “I think if we aren’t talking to all segments of our economy, then we’re missing out.”
Cameron said it’s important to keep in mind the source from which the analysis comes.
“If you know from which perspective it comes, then you can make appropriate judgments on the information,” he said.