Monday, August 12, 2013

ALEC meeting draws Kansas legislators

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — The Kansas Legislature consists of the House and Senate and an influential dose of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Last week, more than 1,000 state legislators from across the country, including some from Kansas, gathered in Chicago at ALEC's annual convention to meet with corporate sponsors and discuss legislation that will find its way into statehouse debates throughout the nation.

The controversial group has a high profile in Kansas — Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, is a former national chair of the group and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, was ALEC's legislator of the year in 2010. Both are members of ALEC's board of directors.

And Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has signed into law several ALEC-inspired bills, including legislation aimed at blocking the Affordable Care Act, which ALEC opposes.

Brownback also paid Arthur Laffer, an economist who serves on ALEC's Board of Scholars, $75,000 as a consultant for Brownback’s plan to phase out the state income tax and eliminate taxes for nearly 200,000 businesses.

ALEC, based in Washington, D.C., describes itself as an organization that seeks free-market policies and limited government.

Critics say the group, which is composed of legislators and business representatives, creates legislation that benefits corporations while hurting average citizens.

The Center for Media and Democracy released a report last week that analyzes ALEC bills that were introduced in 2013.

"When ALEC was born, Richard Nixon was president. Gasoline was 40 cents a gallon and the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour" said CMD Director of Research Nick Surgey. "Forty years later, ALEC legislators seem to be hankering for this bygone era, pursuing an agenda to roll back renewables, expand the use of fossil fuels and suppress wages and benefits for even the lowest paid American workers."

Kansas and ALEC

In Kansas, a healthy contingent of legislators have been active in ALEC for years, going to its meetings, serving in leadership positions on its board and returning to Kansas with model legislation that they then start pushing through the legislative process.

At least 11 Kansas legislators, all Republicans and most in leadership positions, attended last week's meeting in Chicago.

Some are on record as attending because they received state tax dollar support in going, while some will get corporate sponsorships to attend. Wagle's office confirmed that she went.

On the Senate side, those who signed up to go to the ALEC meeting included Majority Leader Terry Bruce, of Hutchinson; Jim Denning, of Overland Park, who is vice chair of Ways and Means; Vice President Jeff King, of Independence, chair of Judiciary; Garrett Love, of Montezuma, chair of Agriculture; Julia Lynn, of Olathe, chair of Commerce; and Mary Pilcher-Cook, of Shawnee, chair of Public Health and Welfare. Those in the House who were signed up to go were Reps. Rob Bruchman, of Overland Park, who is vice chair of Judiciary; Dennis Hedke, of Wichita, chair of Energy and Environment; Kevin Jones, of Wellsville; and Marvin Kleeb, of Overland Park, chair of Commerce, Labor and Economic Development.

The state pays for registration fees to the ALEC meeting for those who serve on an ALEC task force. According to registration forms, fees ranged from $475 to $675 per legislator. Other expenses are picked up by the legislator unless he or she received a scholarship, which is supplied by donations to ALEC.

Last year, approximately two dozen Kansas legislators went to the ALEC meeting in New Orleans.

Spokeswomen for leaders defend ALEC

"The American Legislative Exchange Council is a platform for ongoing policy discussions that educate legislators to be better advocates for their constituents," said Alyson Rodee, a spokeswoman for Wagle.

According to reports at the Chicago meeting, tax cuts passed in Kansas and laws limiting unions in Michigan were getting high marks at the conference.

On Friday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and St. Louis-based lobbyist Travis Brown, who said his firm Pelopidas LLC paid a six-figure financial sponsorship to ALEC, spoke at the event.

Pelopidas is bankrolled by retired investment executive Rex Sinquefield, who currently is footing a more than $2 million advertising campaign aimed at persuading the Republican-led Missouri Legislature to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a bill cutting the state's income tax, the Associated Press reported. In 2011, Sinquefield contributed to a group that advocated the elimination of state income taxes in Kansas.

The spokespersons for Wagle and Merrick downplayed the influence of ALEC on the Kansas Legislature.

Wagle's spokeswoman Rodee said when Wagle considers potential legislation "she considers input from all perspectives, including other legislators, constituents and coalition groups."

Rachel Whitten, a spokeswoman for Merrick, defended ALEC's role.

"The goal is to exchange ideas and learn from each other. Any ideas legislators bring back have to go through the legislative process and receive the signature of the governor," Whitten said. "ALEC in that regard is no different than any other legislative organization such as NCSL (National Conference of State Legislatures) or CSG (Council of State Governments)."

But there are differences between ALEC and those two organizations.

NCSL committees are made up of legislators, while ALEC’s committees are made up of legislators and lobbyists. ALEC produces numerous legislative proposals, which NCSL rarely does.

The NCSL describes itself as “a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation’s 50 states, its commonwealths and territories. NCSL provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.”

The CSG describes itself as the “nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy.”

In the past year or so, a handful of major corporations dropped their memberships in ALEC as the group came under fire from civil rights and government watchdog groups for pushing voter ID laws and “stand your ground” laws.