CODY — Though members of Wyoming’s citizen Legislature pride themselves on being closely connected to their constituents, voters might be surprised to learn that some laws proposed and passed in Cheyenne are first shaped by state lawmakers and major corporations during privately funded junkets in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.
As the 2011 legislative session convenes this week, some watchdog groups — and at least one legislator — are calling for better disclosure from lobbyists and greater transparency from groups that seek to influence or propose specific laws.
One of those groups, the national, nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council, drafts ready-made bills that lawmakers can propose in their home states, with a focus on reducing state regulations and limiting the influence of the federal government.
Wyoming legislators who are ALEC members say it is a useful and needed resource that helps them learn about important issues affecting the corporate sector. But others say it should be easier for voters to track the influence of ALEC and similar groups, and question whether corporate-friendly laws proposed for adoption in all 50 states necessarily make for good government in Wyoming.
“Where we are now with big government, thank goodness there is a group that talks to legislators about free markets and less government,” said Rep. Peter Illoway (R–Cheyenne), state ALEC chair.
Illoway said ALEC has been unfairly maligned by various special-interest groups, and that it is an important and successful “public-private partnership” that helps legislators get up to speed on complex issues affecting every state.
Other similar groups — including some focused on environmental causes, women’s issues and other topics — host educational meetings for legislators. But few are as well-funded or influential in Wyoming as ALEC, which describes itself as the “the nation’s largest nonpartisan, individual membership association of state legislators.”
The group includes about 1,700 lawmakers from across the country, as well as about 300 corporate and foundation members, said ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber.
The Legislature’s 13-member bipartisan management council has long authorized spending public funds for lawmakers to attend leadership training and policy meetings offered by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments or the National Council of State Legislatures.
But the state won’t pay for legislators to attend any of the three annual ALEC meetings, where corporate members and lawmakers jointly serve on various issue-related task forces to draft model legislation.
The model bills are rooted in conservative ideology and address goals like limiting corporate legal liability, rolling back recent federal health care reforms, restricting environmental oversight of industrial activities, promoting offshore oil and gas drilling and opposing limits on credit card interest rates.
Helping legislators draft those model bills are lobbyists and staffers for the health care, energy and financial industries, along with a host of other corporate interests.
ALEC’s private-sector board membership includes current or former executives from AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Peabody Energy, State Farm Insurance, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, have been instrumental in funding and organizing the Tea Party movement.
Legislators pay annual dues of $100 to join, while corporate members pay between $5,000 and $50,000. Companies also pay additional fees for a seat (and a vote) on a model legislation task force, or to host meetings, dinners, parties or entertainment functions.
Federal tax disclosure records for 2009 show that ALEC received more than $5.3 million in grants and donations, plus nearly $1 million in program service revenue. Less than $83,000 in income came from membership dues.
Because ALEC is a tax-exempt, private nonprofit corporation, it is not required to disclose full details of its funding or membership roster, said Weber, who declined to name Wyoming legislators who are members.
Illoway also declined to name Wyoming’s ALEC members, but said that about 18 legislators attended a December policy summit in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t think it’s my place to tell you who went back. That’s up to them,” Illoway said.
State law allows private entities to pay for legislators’ travel, lodging and registration for functions related to their status in the Legislature. Food and beverages are exempt from restrictions on accepting gifts. Consequently, no expense reports or other disclosures are filed by legislators attending such functions. Likewise, no lobbyist disclosure is required by ALEC, which maintains that it does not engage in lobbying.
So the only way to track which legislators attend functions held by groups like ALEC is to ask each elected official individually, something most voters are unlikely to do, particularly if they don’t know which groups to ask about.
Weber said the press is invited to certain public policy discussions at ALEC meetings, but not to the closed-door sessions where task force members debate model legislation. The 23-member public board made up only of legislators has final say on which model bills are formally endorsed, she said.
The press is excluded from task force meetings because only ALEC members may have access to model bills, Weber said, and because some draft bills are never adopted. Making the meetings private also allows for more open and free discussions, she said.
She said no reporters from Wyoming attended ALEC’s December gathering.
Illoway said he didn’t think it was especially important for voters to be able to track which bills contained ALEC language.
“I don’t think that anybody cares in Wyoming about how a particular piece of legislation was put together if it’s good for the citizens and good for the state,” he said.
Rep. Jim Roscoe (D–Wilson) attended separate education sessions last year hosted by the Council of State Governments and ALEC.
The CSG training focused on how to be an effective legislator, build coalitions and deal with the news media, while ALEC sessions were focused on specific industry issues, Roscoe said.
Lobbyists typically attend events hosted by ALEC, CSG and NCSL, including many of the same lobbyists who are active in Cheyenne during the Legislative session.
Roscoe said he attended the ALEC session as a first-time guest, and “went with my eyes open.”
“I think as a legislator, you have to think for yourself,” he said.
It was difficult at times to be one of the few Democrats in a large group of mostly Republicans — many still celebrating the recent national GOP election victories — but the networking and information at ALEC was helpful, he said.
“They took grand care of you, but it’s just a lobby. They are lobbying you for conservative legislation that pretty much benefits these companies,” Roscoe said.
Roscoe said he saw nothing at ALEC that he found legally or ethically questionable, and that he had no reservations about Wyoming lawmakers attending future meetings. He said no one from ALEC urged him to vote a particular way on any specific bill.
Weber said ALEC doesn’t lobby because “we don’t pass legislation — the members decide if they want to take it to their state.”
According to the Internal Revenue Service, “an organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.”
But the agency also states that non-lobbying advocacy groups “may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an education manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.”
A May 2010 report by the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, questioned whether ALEC’s activities amounted to lobbying.
Because ALEC doesn’t lobby the federal government, its actions are subject instead to a mix of state laws governing lobbying, states the AAJ report, “Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America.”
More stringent lobbyist disclosure laws would help voters track the activities of groups like ALEC, said Marcia K. Shanor, executive director of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association.
Shanor said her group has followed Wyoming bills based on ALEC model legislation before, including one related to the insurance industry, but doing so can be difficult without knowing which legislators are ALEC members.
“I would love it if there was some way we could actually look at bills as they move forward this year and see where they came from,” she said.
Shanor said that with ALEC’s corporate dues starting at $7,000, most Wyoming organizations can’t afford to participate.
“Money buys access,” she said, referring to corporate entities with large budgets
“They get more access than those of us with smaller budgets, and access and relationship are hugely important when you’re talking about certain bills,” Shanor said.
The companies that join ALEC and sponsor meetings must get some benefit for their investment, or they wouldn’t spend the money, she said.
Shanor said she was not opposed to ALEC or other groups hosting educational meetings, but that better disclosure laws would help voters track money and influence in state politics.
“There could definitely be more disclosure,” said Sen. Cale Case (R–Lander), who serves as co-chairman with Illoway on the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee.
Wyoming’s lobbyist disclosure law is narrowly focused on activities during the legislative session, and doesn’t necessarily help voters track the full extent and expense of year-round lobbying, he said.
Case said he has found ALEC meetings to be useful and informative, although he doesn’t necessarily agree with all the model bills presented.
“Sometimes it gets a little too close to ‘crony capitalism’ for my taste,” he said.
“But I’m glad that people are getting educated and exposed to different points of view,” he said.
Case said he made a personal decision to pay his own travel, lodging and registration expenses to attend ALEC, although he doesn’t find fault with colleagues who are reimbursed through ALEC’s corporate-funded “scholarships.”
Case also doesn’t accept campaign donations from political action committees.
Much of ALEC’s work reflects a “broad interest among states all across the nation to develop ideas to counter the growing power of the federal government,” he said.
Case said he sees ALEC as a counterbalance to the National Council of State Legislatures, which he views as catering more to the most populous states and generally advocating for expanded government programs or regulations.
While he understood why some people might question the appearance of corporate-funded retreats for lawmakers, Case said Wyoming politics is free of the graft and corruption some might erroneously assume is taking place in Cheyenne or during junkets.
There may be ways to better use technology to track the origin or evolution of specific bills, but the Legislature has made great strides in recent years to provide more information to voters and allow for improved communication with lawmakers, he said.
Dan Neal, executive director of the nonprofit Equality State Policy Center, praised improvements to the Legislature’s web site. The ESPC last year gave Case, co-chair of the Legislative Technology and Process Committee, an award for helping improve voter access to online information.
Neal said that corporations and other interest groups should be able to pitch ideas and share information with lawmakers, but he agreed with Case that better lobbyist disclosure is needed across the board— not just for ALEC or similar groups.
“We think it reinforces the integrity of the entire process, and the Legislature itself, if they are telling people who they’re accepting their financial support from, and frankly, where they’re going for their ideas,” Neal said.
It would be relatively easy to change the Legislature’s rules to require that members turn in a report after attending privately funded education or training sessions, listing who paid for their travel, meals, lodging, entertainment or other perks, Neal said.
Plenty of lobbying goes on in Cheyenne as well, Neal said, and the “process would be better served by tighter reporting on lobbyists themselves, so people have a sense of how much money is spent by special-interest groups trying to influence legislation.”
Weber, the ALEC spokeswoman, said even her group has difficulty tracking all the bills in various states that are based on its model legislation. That’s mainly because lawmakers often pull only sections of a model bill, and don’t always inform ALEC staffers when they sponsor an ALEC-based bill, she said.
A “legislative scorecard” released by ALEC shows that six of the group’s bills were introduced in Wyoming in 2009 and two were passed, although neither Weber nor Illoway knew details of those bills.
Illoway said he also did not have details on which ALEC bills were introduced or passed in Wyoming last year. ALEC’s scorecard shows that 826 ALEC bills were introduced and 115 were enacted nationwide, for a success rate of 14 percent.
Weber said six Wyoming bills introduced in 2010 included at least some ALEC language or priorities, including the Healthy Frontiers pilot project. Still pending is an ALEC-based resolution in support of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing increased corporate funding of election campaigns. An ALEC-based bill directing the Wyoming attorney general to join state lawsuits against federal health care reforms failed last year. Gov. Matt Mead announced last week that Wyoming will seek to join several other states in a lawsuit challenging the legality of federal health care reform.
This year, ALEC-based bills on immigration and health care are likely to be introduced in Wyoming. Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration law was based on a model bill from ALEC.
Illoway cited only one specific ALEC model bill that he has used. That language, included in a 1999 environmental law, was aimed at blocking federally mandated carbon capture and pollution regulation efforts based on the Kyoto Protocol, he said.
Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal last year cited that law — which prevents the state from participating in the regulation of greenhouse gases — as prohibiting him from cooperating with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule that would allow states to exempt small facilities like farms and restaurants from federal greenhouse gas emission limits aimed at large-scale operations like power plants.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DOWNLOAD the 2010 ALEC Legislative Scorecard on 2009 sessions.
DOWNLOAD the American Association for Justice’s May 2010 report on ALEC.
VIEW OR DOWNLOAD ALEC’s 2009 federal tax disclosure form.