Private conservative group ALEC carries sway in legislature

jfrank@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2013 

  • ALEC FINGERPRINTS

    A handful of bills filed by N.C. lawmakers include passages with identical language to model legislation supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization criticized for its close ties to businesses that help write the measures. Here are a few examples:

    • Charter schools: Senate Bill 337 creates an independent board to manage charter schools and includes paragraphs near-verbatim to ALEC’s Charter School Growth with Quality Act. It goes for a full Senate vote Tuesday.

    • Asbestos: The measure is designed to insulate one company, Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings, from asbestos exposure lawsuits related to a former subsidiary. An ALEC measure pushed by the company matches North Carolina’s House Bill 415 and efforts in other states. A House Judiciary committee heard testimony Wednesday but did not take a vote.

    • Obesity lawsuits: The Commonsense Consumption Act is much like an ALEC measure by the same name. It shields food companies from lawsuits related to obesity and weight gain. A House Judiciary committee heard the bill Wednesday but took no action.

    • State sovereignty: House Resolution 617 to express support for the state’s rights under the 10th Amendment includes large portions verbatim from an ALEC resolution to “restate state sovereignty.” The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, and others, is sitting in the House Rules committee.

    • Anti-union: North Carolina law restricts unions, but lawmakers want to put it in the state constitution. House Bill 6 sponsored by Speaker Thom Tillis is similar to an ALEC “Right to Work” measure and includes some of the same language. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday.

  • What is ALEC?

    The American Legislative Exchange Council describes itself as a bipartisan but conservative-leaning organization that promotes free-market “Jeffersonian principles.” It was started by the late Paul Weyrich, who founded the Heritage Foundation and came up with the term “moral majority.”

    The Washington, D.C.-based group has a small staff but relies on businesses and politicians across the country to discuss and draft model legislation on a range of issues through an intensive vetting process. It claims members from one-third of all state lawmakers in the country and 300 private sector companies, a spokesman said.

    Federal tax records show it took in $9.2 million in 2011. Most of its money comes from private sector contributions and grants, totaling $7.8 million in the most recent records. The rest comes mostly from its conferences and a smaller amount from membership fees.

— One bill protects a Fortune 500 company from costly asbestos lawsuits. Another shields food companies from obesity-related liability claims.

North Carolina lawmakers advocating the measures during a recent committee meeting touted how many other states had approved or considered similar measures. It’s good public policy, they argued, and now it’s North Carolina’s turn.

What didn’t get mentioned is the organization that helped coordinate the effort and draft the bills: the American Legislative Exchange Council, a largely private conservative group backed by major corporations that proposes model legislation for like-minded lawmakers to introduce across the country.

Despite being shunned by many of its members amid controversy a year ago, ALEC continues to exert substantial influence in North Carolina. House Speaker Thom Tillis is a national board member, and former Rep. Fred Steen, the past state ALEC chairman, is Gov. Pat McCrory’s legislative lobbyist.

A handful of measures sponsored by North Carolina lawmakers this session include language identical to ALEC’s template legislation. At least two dozen more bills match the organization’s priorities and intent, if not its exact language – everything from requiring voter ID at the polls and allowing private school vouchers to repealing the federal health care law and prioritizing energy exploration.

ALEC’s role in North Carolina makes it a target for critics, particularly the think tank’s cozy relationship with business interests, who play a prominent, but mostly behind-the-scenes, role in crafting legislation alongside the roughly 50 North Carolina lawmakers listed as members.

Republicans affiliated with the organization dismiss the criticism as hyperbole, arguing the organization serves merely as a resource for networking and public policy analysis. But they are keenly aware of it’s public persona.

“It’s a lightning rod organization because it has a decidedly conservative bent – there’s no doubt about it,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican and ALEC member.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit charges lawmakers a $100 membership fee every two years, but the vast majority of its $9 million revenue in 2011 came from corporations who paid huge sums in annual dues, according to federal tax records.

Formed in 1973, ALEC now touts 2,600 state Republican and Democratic lawmakers and 300 businesses as members. It serves as a clearinghouse to push pro-business and socially conservative legislation, as well as an informal vetting process for other measures.

A lawmaker and private sector representative lead the task forces that draft model bills for lawmakers to introduce, but the source for the legislation is often unclear at the state level.

The asbestos measure is one example where a single company, Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings, pushed a model bill to exempt itself from liability lawsuits related to a former subsidiary.

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, a Charlotte Republican, didn’t return numerous messages. Sen. Andrew Brock, a Mocksville Republican who sponsored the Senate version, said a company lobbyist brought him the bill, not ALEC.

Many other Republican lawmakers called about ALEC-affiliated bills did not return calls for comment, and a few denied ALEC involvement.

An ALEC official who recently visited North Carolina declined to answer questions. But a spokesman emphasized that the group puts forth model policy but lawmakers introduce their own legislation. “We care about the exchange of ideas,” Bill Meierling said.

A history in N.C.

The organization’s influence in the state is not new.

Former Republican House Speaker Harold Brubaker sat on the board of directors before his retirement last year and served as national chairman in 1994. More recently, ALEC held a boot camp at the N.C. General Assembly for lawmakers in 2011, and major proposals with the group’s fingerprints won approval last session, such as measures to weaken public employee unions and medical malpractice.

A number of state lawmakers and prominent corporate sponsors, such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, dropped their memberships in 2012 when ALEC’s support for so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws came under scrutiny after the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. As a result, ALEC disbanded the task force that developed criminal justice and election-related legislation.

But the bad publicity didn’t weaken its clout in North Carolina this year.

Even on legislation without direct ALEC involvement, lawmakers seek the group’s opinion. Rep. Pat Hurley, an Asheboro Republican, recently told a legislative committee that she called ALEC for research to support her bill requiring students to learn cursive. And earlier this year, the conservative Civitas Institute hosted a “training” seminar for freshmen lawmakers that featured the organization’s literature. Economist Art Laffer, an ALEC scholar, gave the keynote address at the event.

Tillis and two other lawmakers – ALEC State Chairman Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican , and Asheville Republican Tim Moffitt – skipped the legislative session Thursday to attend the organization’s spring conference in Oklahoma City. Moffitt missed the passage of his own bill to prohibit labor contracts that require unionized workers, an issue that fits ALEC’s platform.

“I’ve been a member for several years, and it’s a great organization,” Tillis said in a recent interview. ALEC named him 2011 legislator of the year. “I think it’s a great collaboration between legislators and businesses.”

Other prominent lawmakers who are members or attended ALEC conferences include Republican Reps. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte, Tom Murry of Morrisville and Skip Stam of Apex, and Sens. Tom Apodaca and Tommy Tucker, according to a watchdog group.

At least two prominent North Carolina companies are also big players: Duke Energy and Reynolds American. The Winston-Salem-based Reynolds gave ALEC between $130,000 and $400,000 in 2010, according to nonpublic tax documents reviewed by The New York Times. The corporations also pay to fly state lawmakers to ALEC conferences in places like New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Washington, records show. Some North Carolina lawmakers charged state taxpayers for expenses, though a total accounting wasn’t available.

Major corporations join ALEC for the access to lawmakers and the ability to push their agenda. “It’s a way for us to talk to them about our company’s ideas to compete effectively in the marketplace,” said David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds Tobacco, a subsidiary of Reynolds American.

A debated role

The role of monied business interests in the organization and the concept of a one-size-fits-all model for policy is what concerns critics, particularly advocacy groups that support workers, public education and the poor.

“ALEC really stands for allowing limitless excess for corporations,” said MaryBe McMillan, the secretary-treasurer at the state AFL-CIO labor union. “I think we are definitely seeing more (ALEC influence). I think it could be because they know there is no governor to stop this type of legislation.”

A cadre of good government and ALEC critics dumped a cache of the organization’s documents on the Internet, allowing comparisons between North Carolina legislation and model bills. Others are posted on the ALEC website.

Common Cause filed an IRS complaint against ALEC last year suggesting it is violating its nonprofit status by lobbying state lawmakers, a charge ALEC denies.

“We fought years ago to eliminate the influence of things of value ... on elected officials,” said Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause in North Carolina. “To us, it would seem that ALEC has the same model. There is certainly a lot of wining and dining of lawmakers at a lot of these ALEC events. ... What we would like to have is transparency and bright lines.”

There’s no comparable group with a more progressive agenda.

GOP: Attacks not justified

Republicans say the attacks on ALEC are unwarranted.

Saine, the state ALEC leader, said the organization is a place for lawmakers to network and get educated.

“It’s a resource for experts you can tap that follow a philosophy that you do from a less government viewpoint,” he said. “It’s not just some big secretive organization that it’s been portrayed.”

Saine said ALEC is no different than the National Conference of State Legislatures, which he considers a liberal-leaning organization. Former House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat, once served as the national conference leader.

But a NCSL spokesman said the group is bipartisan, alternating leadership between Republicans and Democrats, and corporations don’t play a significant role in drafting its model legislation.

Horn, an ALEC member, attended the NCSL conference last week. “I’d like to think I can learn from both,” he said.

As a member of the ALEC task forces, Horn said the model legislation is thoroughly vetted and doesn’t always get unanimous support. Most bills, he said, don’t apply back home.

“The issues really important to people in Colorado or Wyoming aren’t important to people in North Carolina,” he said. “I don’t find (ALEC) that particularly influential.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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