A Wisconsin state legislator is filing a bill that would require greater transparency regarding the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the state.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) has been circulating the "ALEC Accountability Act," a bill that would require ALEC to register with the state as a lobbyist and report the funding sources for the "scholarships" funding legislators' travel. Pocan refers to ALEC as a "dating service" for right-wing politicians and corporations who exercise undue influence over state law by crafting "model" legislation behind closed doors.
New Definition for Lobbying
Pocan believes that while ALEC is doing the work of a lobbyist, it is not complying with the reporting and registration requirements asked of all lobbyists. The bill would redefine "lobbying" to include contact with any member, employee, or agent of a body that "proposes uniform, model, suggested, or recommended legislation."
Under his new bill, Pocan says, "any group that advocates model legislation has to register and follow the regulations of a lobbyist in Wisconsin. That provides a transparency so we know who is advocating for what."
Another issue addressed by Pocan's bill are corporate-funded "scholarships" that fund Wisconsin's ALEC legislators to attend ALEC meetings.
ALEC scholarship money is raised by legislative and corporate state "co-chairs." In Wisconsin, those co-chairs are Rep. Robin Vos and Rep. Scott Suder in partnership with Koch and Pfizer lobbyists. The corporations that pay for these "scholarships" remain secret, leaving the public in the dark about which corporate interests are giving gifts to elected officials -- and keeping voters from knowing whether those gifts influenced policy.
In a state where legislators are not allowed to even accept a cup of coffee from a lobbyist, these scholarships raise significant ethics concerns.
Under the ALEC Accountability Act legislators who receive ALEC "scholarship" money will be required to report this funding on their statements of economic interest, as well as note those corporations providing the funding.
The Pocan bill would also restrict ALEC legislators from using taxpayer dollars to pay ALEC membership dues. At least 12 legislators used taxpayer money to pay ALEC dues, according to an investigation by One Wisconsin Now last year.
ALEC Influence in Wisconsin
A variety of legislative proposals in the 2011-2012 session have been sourced from ALEC, everything from "tort reform," to voter ID, to school choice and charter bills, to tobacco tax policy, to aspects of Governor Scott Walker's bill that limited public sector bargaining rights. The bills are introduced with no indication they had been pre-approved by global corporations at ALEC meetings. This past year the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) unveiled over 800 ALEC "model bills" at the website ALECexposed.org, which allows citizens to match the "model" bills with legislation in their state.
Wisconsin state government is thick with ALEC connections. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was a long time ALEC member during his time as a state legislator, from 1993 - 2002, and listed his ALEC membership in the official Blue Book. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, and Robin Vos, and Alberta Darling, chairs of the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance, are also ALEC members. CMD has identified at least 52 ALEC members in the state legislature.
Pocan has long been concerned with ALEC. In August, he paid his $50 in dues and attended ALEC's Annual Meeting in New Orleans to write about it for the Progressive Magazine. Pocan described how he was bounced from the Reynold's Tobacco cigar reception held off Bourbon Street, even though he is a legislator and dues paying member of ALEC.
But Pocan is most concerned about ALEC's insidious influence on Wisconsin law: "This year alone the attacks on collective bargaining, pension changes, the photo ID bill, health care changes, and a multitude of other pieces of legislation ... have all come from model legislation from ALEC," said Pocan.
The Wisconsin Assembly recently passed the Open-pit Mining Bill (AB 426). Pocan says the bill draws strong elements from three different pieces of ALEC "model legislation." The bill explicitly makes groundwater contamination by mining companies acceptable, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and would deregulate environmental protections and give immunity to mining operations. The majority of Wisconsin drinking water comes from groundwater, so there is concern that the impact of this bill will be hazardous to public health. But it would benefit the out-of-state mining interests that have been pushing this bill.
Regarding the Open-Pit Mining Bill Pocan said, "I don't think the role of the legislator should be to pass legislation in the interest of only the few."
Arizona Introduces Similar Act
While Pocan looks to gather support for the ALEC Accountability Act and potentially take it to a committee hearing, other states are considering similar measures. Arizona Representative Steve Farley (D-Tucson) plans to introduce the "ALEC Accountability Act of 2012." Like Pocan's bill Arizona's "ALEC Accountability Act of 2012" aims to increase ALEC transparency in that state.
"We would like other states to look into [drafting similar bills] to expose ALEC for what they are -- which is a very powerful lobby organization in each of our states," said Pocan.
Politicians are not the only ones demanding action on ALEC. In July 2011, the watchdog organization Common Cause asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate ALEC for its apparent lobbying activity and for advancing private business activities rather than any charitable purpose.