In advance of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) national meeting which begins Wednesday in San Diego, the good government group Common Cause Florida is calling on two state lawmakers to disclose any corporate or special interest funding that is paying for state lawmakers to travel to the west coast for the meeting. ALEC meetings place business executives with state legislators from across the country, where often times so-called model legislation espoused by business interests gets exposed to lawmakers, who frequently will then introduce similar bills when they next convene with their state legislatures.
“Common Cause Florida is urging state Representative John Wood (R-Winter Haven) and state Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) ALEC’s state chairs in Florida, to disclose any corporate or special interest funding to ALEC scholarships that is paying for Florida legislators’ travel to the ALEC event,” the group’s president, Peter Butzin writes in a statement.
“In the past there have been scholarships awarded to various new members who are attending an ALEC conference. We have not made any decisions concerning that,” Representative Wood told Florida Politics from Southern California, where he will be attending the conference this week. He said that each legislator who attends the conference makes his or her own decision about whether to seek out any reimbursement for their travel expenses. One account in which they can dip into is a so-called state “inter-district account” that requires approval by the House administration. Wood also said that were also “special accounts” comprised of left over campaign funds that allow lawmakers to use for office and travel expenses.
Stargel agreed, saying that there are several conferences each year that lawmakers can choose to attend. “I believe the Senate has rules where you typically can only attend one, but you can always attend others and use excess campaign funds. I think they all (conferences) offer scholarships if I’m not mistaken, so I don’t know where they’re trying to go with the story,” referring to Common Cause Florida’s request. “It’s not an unusual thing. We all go to conferences on like-minded issues.”
For example, Stargell said that the National Black Caucus of State Legislators had presented model legislation on body cameras for police officers this past year, a bill that she co-sponsored in the Legislature (she is not attending the ALEC conference this year).
Seven Florida House Republicans are attending the conference: In addition to Wood, Representatives Dennis Baxley from Ocala, Colleen Burton from Lakeland, Neil Combee from Auburndale, Mike Hill from Pensacola, Larry Metz from Eustis and Kathleen Peters from South Pasadena are in San Diego this week.
According to the ALEC’s website:
Unlike in many private sector groups that offer model policies, elected state legislators fully control ALEC’s model policy process. Ideas for model policies are presented in a task force, which any member can join. The task forces often have vigorous discussions on whether to adopt a policy, as well as the language for that policy. When a task force believes a policy is ready, ALEC’s Board of State Legislators must review and approve the policy for it to be posted for other ALEC members.
Although ALEC has been around for over 40 years, increased scrutiny on the legislation that they’ve helped spread to the states in recent years has led to dozens of major corporations to walk away from them in the past few years. Last year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced on NPR’s Diane Rehm show that the company would no longer fund ALEC, accusing the group of “lying” about climate change. There was also strong blowback from the ALEC’s advocacy of Stand Your Ground Laws in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident in 2012, though in fact that legislation was first crafted in Florida back in 2005.
According to SourceWatch.org, a total over 100 companies have dumped their participation in ALEC in the past few years, including Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and General Electric.
Common Cause’s Peter Butzin says it’s outrageous that ALEC is listed as a 501(c)3 organization, which qualifies it to be a tax-exempt group. For years now, Common Cause has pled their cause with the I.R.S. that the group is in fact a lobbying organization. “We have no problems with corporations lobbying, that’s a constitutional right,” Butzin says. “But the fact that this (group) is regarded as a charitable organization, which means it’s a tax expenditure, which means that in part, the citizens of the U.S. who are paying their taxes are helping to subsidize a lobbyist organization.”
Representative Wood says he’s happy to be at the ALEC conference this week, saying, “ALEC’s principals are limited government, free markets and federalism, which are certainly principals that many members of the Florida Legislature endorse.”
GOP presidential candidates Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are scheduled to appear at the conference later this week.