At least 30 bills have been introduced in the Missouri statehouse in recent years that are nearly identical to legislation originally written by a conservative organization whose membership includes some of the country’s largest corporations.
A study released Monday by the liberal group Progress Missouri purported to detail how the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has “exerted extraordinary and secretive influence in the Missouri legislature and other states.”
Nearly 50 current and former legislators in the Show-Me State have ties to ALEC, including House Speaker Steven Tilley, House Majority Leader Tim Jones and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer.
“Missouri legislators have a right to belong to any organization they want to,” said Bob Quinn, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare and a former state representative. “But in the interest of transparency, it’s important we be able to point to how ideas from ALEC are translated into proposals here in Missouri.”
Tilley, who is serving his last term in the House due to term limits, dismissed allegations of undue influence. He said he can’t remember ever attending an ALEC meeting.
“I may have gone to one,” he said. “If the leader of the Republican Party in the Missouri House doesn’t remember ever going to an ALEC meeting, that should answer your question that we’re not on the puppet master’s strings.”
Interest groups on nearly every issue try to shape legislation, and many of the most influential have a hand in writing bills. To its supporters, ALEC is simply a research tool that allows legislators to talk with colleagues from around the country and companies that do business in their state to brainstorm ideas they can bring back with them.
“I know a few members who go to ALEC and say they enjoy it and get positives from it,” Tilley said. “But no one can make the accusation that I run the House based on what ALEC tells me to do.”
To its critics, however, ALEC is a means for corporations to write legislation in closed-door meetings with lawmakers far away from the state capitol.
“These are bills written by corporations for corporations,” said Sean Soendker Nicholson, executive director of Progress Missouri.
But while numerous bills identical to ALEC’s model legislation have been introduced in Missouri, very few have become law. Most ALEC-inspired bills that have found success in Missouri were nonbinding resolutions.
Soendker Nicholson said that although the bills haven’t become law, that doesn’t detract from the fact that lawmakers are outsourcing their legislative responsibilities to an outside organization.
In Missouri, bills dealing with labor laws, charter schools, voting rights and a range of other issues have been introduced in recent years that are virtually identical to ALEC model legislation.
One example of a successful bill was the 2010 ballot initiative aimed at keeping Missouri from enforcing the federal mandate to purchase health insurance. The bill’s legislative sponsor, Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Republican, made no secret that she got the idea directly from ALEC.
ALEC touts itself as a free-market advocacy group that brings lawmakers and corporations together to craft model legislation. State lawmakers pay $50 a year to join. Corporate members pay as much as $25,000.
But over the past three years, documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service show that only around $250,000 of the $20 million ALEC has raised has come from state legislators.
Its corporate membership has included national companies such as Koch Industries Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., Wal-Mart and local entities such as Kansas City Power and Light Co.
To encourage attendance at their conferences, where the work drafting model legislation is done, ALEC offers “scholarships” to members to pay for transportation, hotel and meals. In addition to working groups that actually craft the organization’s model legislation, lawmakers are treated to corporate-sponsored events, such as golf tournaments and evening receptions.
Last summer, more than a dozen Missouri lawmakers and their families and about 30 lobbyists for Missouri companies and political organizations gathered in New Orleans for ALEC’s annual conference.
In recent weeks, ALEC has faced a backlash following criticism of the “Stand Your Ground” laws after the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. The group had lobbied for similar laws in other states.
Numerous corporations, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods Inc., have since announced they will no longer support ALEC.
In a statement released earlier this month, ALEC executive director Ron Scheberle dismissed the “well-funded intimidation campaign against corporate members.”
“Our members join ALEC because we connect state legislators with other state legislators and with job creators in their states,” Scheberle said. “They join because we support pro-business policies that promote innovation and spur local and national competitiveness. They’re ALEC members because they’re more interested in solutions than rhetoric.”