A business-backed, limited-government group that counts House Speaker Thom Tillis as a leader is exerting increasing influence in North Carolina, according to newly disclosed records.
The American Legislative Exchange Council counted 54 out of 170 North Carolina lawmakers as members through June, or roughly one-third of the General Assembly. The state is one of only seven to increase membership more than 40 percent.
The numbers are highlighted in new internal ALEC documents, obtained and published by the British newspaper The Guardian, that shed new light on the organization’s presence in the state. About 10 state lawmakers are attending the group’s conference in Washington this week.
The two North Carolina lawmakers who serve on the national board of directors – Tillis and Asheville Rep. Tim Moffitt – are named in the documents as key potential fundraisers for a major donor campaign. The organization is trying to generate new money after more than 60 corporate and 400 legislative members left it over the past two years. A number of North Carolina entities are identified as possible prospects.
Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican who serves as ALEC’s state director, said reports about the organization’s tough financial situation are exaggerated.
“I’m at the front of a ballroom with 800 people,” Saine said in a phone interview from the conference in Washington. “It doesn’t look to be floundering. It looks pretty strong.”
The organization’s prominent role in North Carolina became clear earlier this year when lawmakers introduced dozens of bills in the legislative session that mirrored ALEC’s priorities, such as voter ID requirements and private school vouchers. A handful included language identical to the organization’s template legislation.
Loss of support
The D.C.-based private nonprofit doesn’t disclose its donors and gets the bulk of its financial support from corporations and business groups that help write the model bills – a system that draw fierce criticism from Democrats and liberal organizations.
The documents provide new ammunition for critics as they highlight how ALEC’s entanglement in the Trayvon Martin controversy in 2012 for its support of “stand-your-ground” gun laws hurt the organization’s membership and donor ranks.
Duke Energy, Lowe’s, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the John Locke Foundation were among the North Carolina entities who let their memberships lapse for various reasons and were identified as potential prospects to boost ALEC’s numbers.
Tillis, Moffitt and former Republican state Rep. Harold Brubaker of Asheboro are named in the draft document as possible North Carolina fundraisers who could identify three or more major individual contributors per state. Brubaker is a former ALEC board member and his new lobbying firm recently joined the group as a business member, the documents show.
Democrats make ALEC an issue
Democrats are making Tillis’ involvement in ALEC an issue in his bid for the U.S. Senate, saying it is part of a theme linking him to special interests. Tillis, who faces a five-way Republican primary for the party’s nomination, was named by ALEC as the 2011 “legislator of the year.”
Citing the new documents, Democrats note that Tillis attended an August meeting in Chicago at which board members reviewed a draft of a job description for state chairmen that asks them to “act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first.”
The next line in the description says the chairman should comply with all laws and ethics rules, which would include their oath of office.
Bill Meierling, an ALEC spokesman, said the description was rejected. “That’s the end of it,” he said.
But Sadie Weiner, a spokesman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign, said it raises questions about whether Tillis supported the job description.
“I think North Carolinians would be concerned that outsiders are trying to take control of the democratic process in our state,” she said, referring to the model legislation program.
Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said the Cornelius Republican attended the board meeting but doesn’t recall the discussion about the document. He declined to say whether Tillis supported the description or fulfilled his role as a key fundraiser. He made no attempt to distance the speaker from the organization.
“It’s another example of throwing mud at the wall and hoping something sticks,” Shaw said. “They know he is the candidate to defeat Kay Hagan less than a year from now.
Saine, the state chairman, said critics jump on ALEC because they disagree with the group’s mission.
“They can try to beat you over the head with it but it doesn’t get away from the fact it’s a philosophical difference” between ALEC and critics, he said.
If anything, Saine said, the ALEC connection may help Tillis’ campaign because it shows he believes in a smaller role for the federal government.
“I think it’s mostly a positive for him if he continues to talk about less government,” Saine said.