ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On Feb. 3, Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo posted this note on his Twitter feed:
"I don't think there is a more beautiful view than the ocean at night..."
He followed the cryptic missive on Feb. 6 with a picture of the sunrise over the Orlando Airport tarmac.
As it turns out, Garofalo wasn't at the beach that weekend. Rather, he was in Minnesota, meeting GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul and playing Risk with his son, among other things.
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Garofalo said the tweets were meant to fool his DFL colleagues into believing that he'd been at a lavish retreat at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a non-profit organization for state lawmakers who embrace conservative ideas. ALEC's private-sector members and backers include ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, and Koch Industries, according to ALEC's website.
"It definitely gets a rise out of them," Garofalo, an ALEC member, said. "But the story is there is no story."
ALEC is best known for bringing together legislators and corporations to write model legislation, drafts that are meant to inspire bills introduced at the state level. ALEC's approach has been effective: Over more than three decades, the organization has become a key player in a broader effort to advance conservative ideas in state houses across the nation.
To government watchdogs and liberal groups, ALEC is no joke. They say ALEC behaves like a lobby but doesn't register as one. They point out that corporations pay thousands of dollars to have a seat at the table with friendly lawmakers, and that its model-bill writing process happens in secret.
"It really brings up the question of whose interest do our legislators really have, these constituents or corporate special interests?" said Mike Dean who is the executive director of Common Cause-Minnesota. His group released a report linking more than 60 Minnesota bills to ALEC model legislation and naming 27 state lawmakers with ALEC memberships.
Former ALEC state chair Laura Brod was a Republican state representative until 2011. She said it's a good way for lawmakers to talk about issues and share ideas.
"Nothing ALEC could possibly do could pass legislation through a legislature. Only legislators can do that," Brod said. "And if the legislators are of the like mind of ALEC, something might pass. If they're not, they won't. I'm fascinated by this idea that ALEC has a stranglehold on legislatures, because they simply don't."
During this year's campaign, organizations including the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and Common Cause-Minnesota are linking the state's Republican legislators and their agenda to ALEC as part of a broader election theme that Republicans have business interests in mind, not Minnesotans'.
The message appears to be catching on. Occupy Minnesota and unions protested ALEC at the Capitol earlier this week. Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton named ALEC when he vetoed a package of tort bills, and DFL Sen. Scott Dibble introduced a bill that would require ALEC to disclose its activities in Minnesota.
To measure ALEC's activity in Minnesota, critics say to look no further than the Legislature's debate over a constitutional amendment that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. It's sponsored by ALEC's Minnesota state chair, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, and is similar to ALEC's proposal.
ALEC's ideas can also be found in bills that would relax tort law, repeal the new federal health care law, and change union fee rules. And the group's views are found in obscure legislation as well, including a bill that would create online car insurance registry and a bill that would prevent asbestos lawsuits from being brought against a company that has offices in Minnesota.
While it's clear that a number of Republican-backed bills being debated in St. Paul share a common history with ALEC, Minnesota lawmakers who belong to ALEC say similarities between their agenda and ALEC's aren't part of a conspiracy. They say both the Legislature and the non-profit have a conservative bent, so ideas about tort reform, unions and gun rights, for instance, are bound to overlap.
What's less obvious is how ALEC is influencing the Legislature's work. ALEC appears to be just one part of a wider web of lobbyists, trade groups and think-tanks advocating a conservative agenda in state Legislatures across the country, including Minnesota, which gained momentum and prominence after GOP victories in 2010.
ROOTS IN CHICAGO
ALEC's roots can be traced back to 1973, when a small group of conservative state legislators and operatives met in Chicago to launch a group for state lawmakers based on promoting the principles of small government, federalism and individual liberty. They envisioned the organization as a hotbed for conservative ideas that state lawmakers could introduce in their home states.
ALEC's emergence was part of a wider response from the business community to tighter environmental, food and drug laws, said John Nichols, a journalist for The Nation who has written extensively about the organization.
"The regulatory processes of the country really seemed to be tipping very, very much toward consumers," Nichols said. "And so ALEC was created back in 1973 as a way to frame out a push for less regulation, for looser environmental laws, for looser legal constraints on bigger corporations."
Today, ALEC has more than 2,000 legislative members and a reported 300 private sector members. The group's public sector membership is largely Republican, but some Democrats are members, too.
ALEC is unlike other organizations that cater to state lawmakers because of its close ties to the private sector. While lawmakers can join ALEC for as little as $100, companies, law firms, trade groups and non-profit organizations pay up to $25,000 to be ALEC members. The access is billed as "an unparalleled opportunity to have its voice heard, and its perspective appreciated, by the legislative members," according to a brochure on the group's website.
For several thousand dollars more, corporations can sit on one of ALEC's nine task forces. The working groups are tailored to a range of issues from health care to tax and fiscal policy. That's where private and public sector members hash out model legislation.
The process is much like a committee hearing, said Mark Behrens, a lawyer with Shook, Hardy & Bacon and an advisor to ALEC's Civil Justice Task Force. Lawmakers or private sector members can bring forward legislative ideas, he said, and the proposals are debated and amended. A majority of the private and public sector members must agree to the legislation.
"There's a give and take there," Behrens said. "It's definitely not a rubber stamp as some people have portrayed. Because at the end of the day, if the legislators take model legislation and introduce them in their state, it has to be something they can defend."
Ultimately, those proposals are put to a board of lawmakers for final approval, explained ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss.
ALEC weighs in on specific issues as well. Its website includes press releases applauding efforts to overturn the health care law. Earlier this year, it protested the administration's decision to block construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
ALEC's mark can also be found on a range of issues dating back decades. At least 1,000 bills based at least in part on ALEC model legislation are introduced each year, the group's website says, and roughly 20 percent ultimately become law.
For instance, ALEC had a hand in boosting an array of state bills in the 1990s that created a broader demand for private prison companies, including the Corrections Corporation of America, which co-chaired the panel that wrote some of the group's model prison legislation.
ALEC IN MINNESOTA
Minnesota's ALEC membership has expanded in recent years. Roughly 30 Republican lawmakers are members, according to former ALEC state chairwoman Laura Brod, who is credited with boosting the group's membership in St. Paul. ALEC spokeswoman Buss declined to make Minnesota's roster public, but according to documents published by Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, the state's members range from freshman lawmakers to committee chairman and legislative leaders.
At least five of those lawmakers have registered or attended ALEC meetings, according to media and campaign finance reports. But most who spoke with MPR News said they were not especially active in ALEC.
As a new legislator with little political background, Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, joined ALEC because he found their materials on governing to be useful in his new job.
"For me it was like grabbing a hold of an encyclopedia," Parry said. But Parry, who is also seeking the GOP nomination to run for Congress in the 1st District, added he's never attended ALEC conferences.
Brod said ALEC is no different than other legislative organizations.
"It allows you to talk about issues that are important and to learn perspectives from how things work in other states," she said. "The point is that legislators don't need to reinvent the wheel. They can learn from each other."
At least one Wisconsin Democrat had a very different experience at an ALEC meeting. In the left-leaning Progressive Magazine, State Assemblyman Mark Pocan wrote that ALEC-affiliated corporations are running the show.
"At a workshop I attended, one Texas legislator, who moderated the forum, went as far as to say that we are a big football team," Pocan wrote. "The legislators are the football players and the corporate lobbyists and special interest group presenters are 'our' coaches."
That sort of relationship is what Alliance for a Better Minnesota Executive Director Carrie Lucking said Minnesotans should be concerned about this election year.
"ALEC is not a think tank. There are no scholars. There are no papers or research," Lucking said. "This is corporate lobbyists writing bills to further game the system to benefit corporations at our expense."
Lucking said ALEC should have to register as a lobbying group in Minnesota. ALEC officials say they don't lobby.
PLAYING LEGISLATIVE 'TELEPHONE'
After years of DFL control of the state Legislature, the debate over union rights has taken root in Minnesota, now that power has shifted to the Republicans. Just this week, a Senate panel approved a bill that would allow voters to decide whether non-union employees should be required to pay union dues even if they don't want representation. Over the din of protestors outside the judiciary committee doors, DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights pointed out that the so-called "right-to-work" bill has ALEC roots.
"It's a very conservative group in Washington, D.C., that's dictating to the more Republican states some of the agenda they should be trying to pass in every state, and this is one of those things," Goodwin said. "I highly suspect you'll have a lot of opposition at the polls, and maybe that will be good for Democrats." The bill's Senate sponsor, Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he hasn't spoken with anyone at ALEC. But Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who is sponsoring an identical bill in the House, says he's been a member of ALEC for four years.
"I am a member of ALEC as I am a member of a good number of organizations that align with the type of legislative outlook that I have and that match the values of the folks in my district," Drazkowski explained.
Nevertheless, Drazkowski said he's never introduced ALEC bills, and said he didn't get language for his "right-to-work" bill from the group. Rather, he said he found it on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's website, a right-leaning think-tank in Michigan. Legal analyst Patrick Wright, who wrote the model bill in 2007 when Michigan was mulling a similar constitutional amendment, said he tweaked language from an Oklahoma law that effectively did the same thing.
This game of legislative 'telephone' isn't unique to the union dues and membership bill. At least a few proposals that mirror ALEC-legislation have found their way to St. Paul by other means - through lobbyists, think-tanks and interest groups.
Take legislation introduced by Sen. Parry that would protect Pennsylvania-based metal packaging firm Crown Holdings from asbestos claims resulting from a decades-old merger with a smaller firm that made the deadly substance. It's identical to an ALEC model bill, but Parry said the language was brought to him by the company, which has two branches in his district. ALEC adopted the bill eight years ago after it passed in two other states, said Mark Behrens, who advises Crown Holdings. A few years later, a separate organization catering to state legislators adopted similar language.
Meanwhile, a bill to create an online car insurance registry is, in part, drawn from an ALEC bill crafted jointly by members of the insurance industry and a company specializing in vehicle insurance verification, said Marianne Allard, who is the chair of the Insurance Industry Committee on Motor Vehicles Administration. The idea is that the insurance companies would get more business and it would be easier for states to verify drivers have coverage, Allard said. In Minnesota, online verification bill has been pushed by the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, an association representing insurance companies.
DRIVING THE AGENDA?
Minnesota is just one of 26 states considering voter identification legislation this year, and Lucking says ALEC is behind the nationwide trend.
"The reason you see coordination across the county is because ALEC is actually driving the agenda," she said. But Kiffmeyer has denied her voter identification bill has ALEC origins.
"I might have a novel brain in my head and have a unique thought," Kiffmeyer recently told the Associated Press.
Still, Kiffmeyer's comments illustrate how conservative lawmakers run in circles and share conservative ideas.
"These are policy networks. A policy network in any state Capitol or in Washington D.C. will consist of legislators with a certain ideological slant and congenially minded interest groups," said John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, who watched his own state battle over union rules last year. "That is to say, conservative legislators do indeed take ideas from conservative policy wonks."
The ideas are getting more traction now because more legislatures are controlled by Republicans, he added.
For his part, Gov. Dayton says ALEC worries him, but it's the broader conservative agenda that he's keeping tabs on.
"It seems clear that some of the legislation that's coming through Minnesota is part of this national playbook, and ALEC seems to be one of the linchpins of that," Dayton said. "I think it is part of a concerted effort, but I don't know if ALEC is necessarily masterminding it."
But Dayton added that if he's presented with a bill he believes is good for Minnesota, he'll sign it.
"The source of it is something to be aware of is part of a bigger picture but it's not something that determines whether I sign a bill," Dayton said.