McEntee: Utahns need to take a hard look at ALEC and its influence
The reawakening of the Sagebrush Rebellion began with a bold, if constitutionally suspect, demand from the 2012 Legislature: The federal government must cede all federal lands to the state of Utah.
That legislation was supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-backed and deeply conservative organization that counts thousands of state legislators, including about 30 Utah Republicans, as members.
Once a relatively under-the-radar organization, ALEC has caught the attention of consumer advocates, civil rights groups and others who question its motives and strategies for bending state laws to its agenda.
Now, Utah activist groups such as the Alliance for a Better Utah, the League of Women Voters and others have taken aim at ALEC and challenged its "radical social agenda." Their initiatives precede ALEC's July 25-28 conference in Salt Lake City.
They believe, as I do, that ALEC has promoted voter suppression, privatization of public education and lands, irresponsible gun ownership and "stand your ground" laws of the kind seen in the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida.
I'd add the proliferation of privately run prisons such as those in Arizona, where cost overruns, escapes and even riots have plagued the state, the Arizona Republic has reported. Lobbyists for that enterprise spend huge amounts of money to influence lawmakers.
Here's how ALEC works: Representatives of big companies like Exxon Mobil, for example, sit down at national conventions with lawmakers and hammer out model bills, including privatization of public lands, prisons and education, gun and voter laws and undermining environmental protections.
As Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, Utah's ALEC state chairman, put it, "We have the opportunity to work with lawmakers in other states on ideas, model language for bills [and] collaboration with states on issues about which we disagree with the federal government."
More to the point, ALEC's embraces, as Niederhauser does, the concept of free markets, limited government and the Jeffersonian principle that powers not constitutionally granted to the feds belong to the states. Niederhauser also maintains that, contrary to critics' assertions, most of the bills ALEC members debate come from legislators themselves. For example, he says, Rep. Ken Ivory's 2012 bill regarding the surrender of federal lands to the state became "model language" at ALEC.
Niederhauser also says that ALEC is similar in that regard to the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures, in that bills are debated and written, then must go through the legislative wringer. By the way, last week Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed that state's public lands bill.
The Alliance's Maryann Martindale, however, worries that high-powered corporate lobbyists have gained too much access to, and power over, lawmakers and community leaders. Again, take the federal land demand as an example. Among its provisions is opening those lands to drilling, mining, exploration and logging, even in national parks.
"The average citizen has no idea how to deconstruct a national park," she says.
It's more troubling that corporations such as Exxon Mobil, AT&T, Pfizer Inc., Comcast and hundreds more are affiliated with ALEC, as are big-money men like the billionaire-libertarian Koch brothers of Texas. Naturally, the National Rifle Association is a key ally.
Just recently, though, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, just last week, Amazon have broken ranks with ALEC. In the aftermath, ALEC announced it would return to its pro-growth economic platform and eliminate its public safety and elections task forces
We have to ask ourselves, and the lawmakers affiliated with ALEC, whether we should just accept its influence here in Utah or reinstate independent, thoughtful governance. There's just too much at stake to relinquish our public policy to a secretive think tank fed by millions of corporate dollars.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @ Peg McEntee.