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State legislative bills raise conservative group's profile

The nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, made up of conservative state lawmakers and corporate executives, crafted the language that has resulted in similar legislation in several states. Watchdog groups are scrutinizing the organization's practices.

July 13, 2011|By Tom Hamburger and Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has drafted state legislation asking Congress to compel the EPA to stop regulating carbon emissions. Nearly identical versions of the resolution have won at least partial approval in 13 states. Above, a coal-powered plant in Montana.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has drafted state… (James Woodcock / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — In late January, the Indiana House of Representatives adopted a resolution asking Congress to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to stop regulating carbon emissions, declaring that "EPA over-regulation is driving jobs and industry out of America." Almost identical resolutions have won at least partial approval in a dozen other states, from Virginia to Michigan to Wyoming.

And it's no coincidence that the language of these resolutions is similar, describing EPA's plans to curb air pollution as a "train wreck" that will harm the economy.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said that ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber had said that corporate leaders have a prominent role in drafting the group's bills and resolutions.

In each case, the basic text of the resolutions sprang not from state capitols but from a relatively little-known, Washington-based nonprofit group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Composed of more than 1,500 conservative state legislators and executives of some of the nation's biggest corporations, ALEC collects millions of dollars in corporate contributions to generate a steady stream of bills and resolutions for state action.

Topics include reducing government regulation, privatizing government services and requiring voters to show proof of identity at polling places.

On Wednesday, a Wisconsin-based liberal activist group, the Center for Media and Democracy, released thousands of pages of internal ALEC documents, including model bills, emails and details of the organization's internal procedures, which give private-sector representatives a major role in drafting proposed legislation.

"Dozens of corporations are paying millions of dollars a year to write business-friendly legislation that is becoming law in statehouses from coast to coast," said Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who is currently president of Common Cause, the government watchdog group.

Common Cause plans to challenge ALEC's nonprofit status, arguing that it spends most of its resources lobbying, in violation of the rules governing nonprofit organizations.

ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber denied the accusation, saying, "ALEC does not lobby. We employ no lobbyists." And she made the case that having legislators meet with private-sector officials is good for democracy: "Legislators should hear from those the government intends to regulate."

Left-leaning labor and other groups have their own advocacy organizations. Activists on the left, however, contend that ALEC stands out because it is focused on bringing together legislators and private-sector leaders to draft proposals for state action.

Weber countered that although any member can suggest a bill for consideration, the organization requires final approval from a board consisting only of legislators.

ALEC was formed in the mid-1970s by conservative activist Paul Weyrich and others as a way of influencing state regulatory and legislative decisions. The new ALEC documents reveal that corporations — including Coca-Cola and Koch Industries — pay thousands of dollars annually for ALEC membership and to participate in meetings with state legislators.

The group reported receiving $6.3 million in revenue in 2009, according to IRS forms provided by the Center for Media and Democracy, with only a sliver from legislators' dues. Weber said that most of the money was raised at the annual meetings where lawmakers and executives meet to discuss issues to target.

"I think you see legislators responding to what is presented at their annual, spring and fall meetings each year," said Adam Schafer, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, an association of moderate and liberal lawmakers. Schafer attended ALEC's meetings last year.

"Whatever they target at those meetings likely will get attention. At last year's meetings there was a lot of 'education' on EPA's greenhouse gas regulations, which I think motivates legislators to act," he said.

Legislators from every state are members of ALEC, many of them top GOP officials who champion the group's causes.

The Indiana bill, for example, was introduced by Republican state Rep. David Wolkins, who is co-chair of ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. In Virginia, state Delegate James W. "Will" Morefield said he took the EPA resolution verbatim from the ALEC website after it had been presented to him by the coal industry, according to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

Environmentalists believe that ALEC, working with other conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, has led an aggressive push to dismantle regional climate agreements. In past months, legislators in Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington introduced legislation with nearly identical language demanding their states pull out of the Western Climate Initiative, which focuses on fighting global warming.

The model text they used is an ALEC document called State Withdrawal from Regional Climate Initiatives.

Lawmakers in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire took similar steps to abandon their regional accords. In some states, the bills did not muster enough votes, and in New Hampshire, the governor vetoed a bill that passed both houses. Weber said ALEC would continue working on this initiative.

ALEC has clout not only because it has a grass-roots network but because it has more than 300 corporations as members. The organizations pay wide-ranging dues and make substantial campaign contributions to state races.

Common Cause calculated that 22 of ALEC's key member companies had contributed more than $317 million to state election campaigns over the last decade.

Documents released Wednesday show that ALEC considers private-sector representatives to be "an equal partner" in the organization's task forces.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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