CORRECTION: A list of lawmakers appearing with this article mistakenly said that Utah state Rep. Paul Ray, the current public sector chair of an ALEC task force, was a former ALEC staff director.
October 29, 2010- When you walk into the offices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it's hard to imagine it is the birthplace of a thousand pieces of legislation introduced in statehouses across the county.
Only 28 people work in ALEC's dark, quiet headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Michael Bowman, senior director of policy, explains that the little-known organization's staff is not the ones writing the bills. The real authors are the group's members — a mix of state legislators and some of the biggest corporations in the country.
"Most of the bills are written by outside sources and companies, attorneys, [and legislative] counsels," Bowman says.
Here's how it works: ALEC is a membership organization. State legislators pay $50 a year to belong. Private corporations can join, too. The tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and drug-maker Pfizer Inc. are among the members. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year. Tax records show that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year.
With that money, the 28 people in the ALEC offices throw three annual conferences. The companies get to sit around a table and write "model bills" with the state legislators, who then take them home to their states.
Lobbying Or Education?
One of those bills is now Arizona's controversial new immigration law. It requires police to arrest anyone who cannot prove they entered the country legally when asked. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants could be locked up, and private prison companies stand to make millions.
The largest prison company in the country, the Corrections Corporation of America, was present when the model immigration legislation was drafted at an ALEC conference last year.
ALEC's Bowman says that is not unusual; more than 200 of the organization's model bills became actual laws over the past year. But he hedges when asked if that means the unofficial drafting process is an effective way to accelerate the legislative process.
"It's not an effective way to get a bill passed," he says. "It's an effective way to find good legislation."
The difference between passing bills and "finding" them is lobbying. Most states define lobbying as pushing legislators to create or pass legislation. And that comes with rules. Companies typically have to disclose to the public what they are lobbying for, who's lobbying for them or how much they are spending on it.
If ALEC's conferences were interpreted as lobbying, the group could lose its status as a non-profit. Corporations wouldn't be able to reap tax benefits from giving donations to the organization or write off those donations as a business expense. And legislators would have a hard time justifying attending a conference of lobbyists.
Bowman says what his group does is educate lawmakers.
"ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss," he says. "You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They're just trying to learn a policy and understand it."