McEntee: Lawmaker quits ALEC over lack of openness
Clearly, Rep. Christine Watkins had had enough.
One of the few women and even fewer Democrats to be a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), she withdrew her membership in an organization that has come under intense scrutiny for putting state lawmakers in touch with big corporations in private. Watkins lives in Price and serves District 69, which encompasses San Juan County and parts of Carbon, Emery and Grand counties.
She said in a news release that she joined ALEC "because I felt their goals on issues such as public lands matched what was best for the people in my district. However, I've become troubled by other aspects of their work."
She's not the only one. Many lawmakers not affiliated with ALEC have deep doubts about it, given the 1,000 or so bills it churns out each year for introduction in every state. Earlier this year, Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, let her membership expire. She and former Democratic Sen. Scott McCoy had joined just to take a look at ALEC's processes, but McCoy left office and moved out of state a couple of years ago.
Seelig said she experienced only one meeting and one 15-minute conference call. She never ran an ALEC bill, preferring to focus on issues involving teenage girls and women.
"Just because I was part of an organization doesn't mean I concur with public policy coming from there," she said.
Now, with Watkins' departure, about two dozen Republican lawmakers remain affiliated with ALEC.
ALEC is all about putting big companies in the same room as legislators from every state and working out new laws, including those on education, private prisons, bail bond companies, guns, voter laws, unions and legislation intended to curb environmental protections.
Perhaps best known are the "stand your ground" laws that relate directly with the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida.
This year, Utah Rep. Ken Ivory sponsored a flawed bill demanding that the federal government surrender virtually all public lands to the state. Critics say that will never work and cost a fortune, but the bill now is considered to have model language at ALEC, which is holding a four-day conference in Salt Lake City starting Wednesday.
ALEC is all for free markets, limited government and federalism. But it has been the subject of protests and considerable investigative reporting, and many big corporations such as Coca-Cola and organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have walked away.
Here in Utah, individuals and organizations are rallying to protest ALEC's annual convention. Among them are Common Cause, ALEC Exposed, the AFL-CIO, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Utah League of Women Voters and the Alliance for a Better Utah, whose ALEC Exposed conference is set for July 25-27.
Maryann Martindale, Alliance for a Better Utah's executive director, also has submitted Government Records Access and Management (GRAMA) requests for all email communications between Utah lawmakers and ALEC. She also seeks an accounting for expenses, reimbursed by public funds, for lawmakers who attended ALEC conferences as well as the National Conference of State Legislators and the Council of State Governments.
Finally, Martindale wants the name of every legislator who is a member of ALEC.
"We're not children," she said. "We're voters, taxpayers, adults. They work for us. They demand respect, but don't give it back. It's about having some integrity and being fair."
Some Utah members of ALEC have defended their involvement, including Sen. Curt Bramble and Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, ALEC's Utah chairman. But I believe Christine Watkins framed the issue best when she said, "Any good legislator works in the open, in full view of the people, in order to keep the process honest and democratic.
"The secrecy and removal of the public from the lawmaking process ALEC fosters is something I simply cannot ignore, and as of this week I have withdrawn my membership."
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.