ALEC conference kicks off amid protests, questions of influence

Hundreds of lawmakers, lobbyists and representatives from major corporations are expected to gather in downtown Indianapolis this week for the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual conference. (WISH photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Hundreds of lawmakers, lobbyists and representatives from major corporations are expected to gather in downtown Indianapolis this week for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual conference.

On Wednesday, they were met by hundreds of protesters from unions and other groups opposed to ALEC. The protesters who gathered outside the JW Marriott Hotel (where the conference is being held) chanted: “Hey hey, ho ho, ALEC has got to go.”

ALEC, non-profit charitable organization, has been mired by criticism in recent years — accused by opponents of acting as a middleman between corporate interests and lawmakers.

Officials with ALEC admit their conference is intended to be about “education and an exchange of ideas” including discussions of model legislation that can be adopted in other states.

“The primary benefit to belonging to ALEC is pure education. You learn about issues that you would never have the opportunity to learn,” said State Sen. Jim Buck, R- Kokomo, and an ALEC state vice chairman.

But opponents argue ALEC conferences give lobbyists and corporate big-wigs exclusive access to influence lawmakers where behind closed doors potential laws are discussed.

State Sen. Jim Buck, R- Kokomo, denied that laws are discussed, saying that they are “model legislation.”

But I-Team 8 found at least two recent pieces of legislation – one bill and one resolution – that appear to have been directly influenced by ALEC. One resolution, sponsored by Rep. David Wolkins, was a pro-coal resolution that urged Congress and the Obama administration to allow states the ability to police their emissions. Language from the ALEC resolution was copied word for word into Wolkins’ resolution.

In addition to that, I-Team 8 found language in a bill that repealed a common construction wage appeared to have been influenced by ALEC.

“From our perspective they are a lobbying organization masquerading as a charity,” said Julia Vaughn with Common Cause Indiana.

Vaughn’s group was among those protesting the conference on Wednesday.

“So clearly they are intimately involved in the legislative process. We believe if that’s the case – there is nothing wrong with that. Lobbying is legitimate. It’s an activity protected by the Constitution.
But you need to be doing it in the light of day. You need to be transparent about it.”

Bill Weierling, vice president of public affairs for ALEC, contends that the group is transparent.

He told I-Team 8 that the group’s model legislation is available for public inspection online and that his group is open to policy debates and discussion. He encouraged those who have criticisms of ALEC to join the group where they could be engaged in the debate and exchange of ideas.

An I-Team 8 reporter’s press credential allows him access to workshops, breakfast and luncheon discussions but not task force meetings where model legislation is often discussed and voted upon by ALEC members and lawmakers.

When pressed about why task force meetings aren’t open to the public, he said: “The reality is people want to have free, open debate and discussion and sometimes that requires privacy.”

I-Team 8’s Bennett Haeberle pressed: “But aren’t public laws being made in private?

Meirling; “They are not laws. They are discussions of model policies.”

Haeberle: “That could potentially become law?”

Meirling: “Potentially pieces of them could become law.”

Vaughn also criticized ALEC for providing scholarships to lawmakers who attend ALEC conferences. According to ALEC’s website, private members of the non-profit organization pay higher fees than lawmakers. In turn, that money is often used to provide financial assistance for lawmakers attending ALEC conferences, Buck confirmed.

“Without the scholarships, some lawmakers would not be able to attend,” Buck said.

When asked if those dollars would potentially buy influence of the lawmakers attending, Buck said: “It influences them in this way. They are smarter and wiser on a holistic basis.”

Buck said at least 16 Indiana lawmakers plan to attend this week’s ALEC conference. Buck denied that taxpayer dollars were involved. But records obtained by I-Team 8 show that 13 Indiana lawmakers have asked for mileage reimbursement for attending the conference.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was initially supposed to give a speech during the opening luncheon but because he was campaigning with Donald Trump, Pence was rescheduled to give a speech at the conference on Friday.

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