Utah will host hundreds of lawmakers, mostly Republicans, as the American Legislative Exchange Council holds its annual meeting in Salt Lake City in late July.
ALEC is one of the most influential conservative groups in the country. A 2019 investigation by USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and The Center for Public Integrity found that at least 10,000 bills copied from ALEC’s model legislation were introduced nationwide over an eight-year period. More than 2,100 of them were signed into law.
The organization supports a network of lawmakers that provides ready-made legislation, which they call “model bills,” for state legislatures to adopt.
“We’ve always brought together legislators and stakeholders to test ideas where they can discuss and debate public policy,” Bill Meierling, chief marketing officer for the group, told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board.
ALEC helped popularize “stand your ground” laws, also known as “castle doctrine.” The law allows people who feel threatened to use lethal force to defend themselves. That law started in Florida but spread to dozens of states in the early 2000s with ALEC’s help. The law helped George Zimmerman avoid prison in the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Focus on voting laws
The group shifted its focus to more business-friendly legislation after a boycott following Martin’s slaying prompted several high-profile corporations to drop their membership in the organization.
Most recently ALEC was the subject of backlash as companies were pressured to cut ties with the group after assertions the organization helped craft new restrictive voting laws in states like Georgia and Texas.
More than 1,500 legislators from across the country are set to attend the gathering in downtown Salt Lake City. A number of economic issues are likely to be on the agenda for discussion.
“We’re usually talking with legislators about how to be more economically competitive and grow jobs in their states,” Jonathan Williams, ALEC’s chief economist, said Tuesday.
Williams added that he expects navigating the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic to be of particular interest as state revenues have rebounded better than expected, especially with billions of dollars of federal pandemic aid pouring into state coffers.
“Looking at how to navigate federal funds coming into the states,” Williams said. “There will be a big focus on helping states navigate that situation.”
The group’s website says the organization provides a “forum for stakeholders to exchange ideas and develop real, state-based solutions” on a raft of issues. Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, serves as ALEC’s chairman this year.
“We’ve always brought together legislators and stakeholders to test ideas. We bring them together in task forces, which discuss policy,” Meierling said, taking great pains to emphasize that only legislators get to propose ideas for model legislation, but private-sector representatives get to vote on whether they are approved.
“Government can learn from the private sector,” Meierling said, “just as the private sector can learn from government.”
He added that there’s an advantage to adding private-sector voices to the discussion.
“If a company is involved with our organization, their competitors likely are, as well. So there’s an opportunity for legislators to hear the pros and the cons from both sides,” Meierling said. “There is an incredible value of having model policy discussions in a way that allows legislators to test ideas.”
Price of entry
Lawmakers pay about $100 for membership in the organization while private-sector groups pay between $12,000 and $25,000 a year.
“Our budget is between $8 million and $10 million per year,” Lisa Nelson, ALEC’s CEO said in response to a question about whether the nonprofit group was transparent about how it is funded.
“We fill out the same forms every other organization does,” Nelson said. “.It’s available on our website. You can check our funding there.”
The IRS form 990s for ALEC from 2017 and 2018 show donations to the nonprofit of more than $8 million each year, but they do not detail individual or corporate donations.
ALEC says it’s a nonpartisan group. But just how many of the legislators who will make their way to Utah at the end of the month will be Democrats?
“That’s a good question,” Meierling said after a noticeable pause, estimating about 15% of the attendees will be Democrats.
“We welcome Democrats, Republicans, communists, fruititarians, and what have you to be part of the organization. The reality is, and this is an indictment of our system today, people are retreating to their camps. They don’t want to make bridges of understanding. They want to sit in their little corners and shout at each other,” Meierling said.
“It’s unfortunate, but we’d love to have more Democrats come,” Nelson added. “I’m hoping that we’ll get more Democrats at this meeting.”
Adams said he hopes for more participants from across the aisle this year.
“They may not agree with the conservative economics or the policies,” Adams said. “But we think those policies should be debated, not the rhetoric about the things you read on Wikipedia. Come be a part of the process, and let’s diffuse that rhetoric.”
The conference features an all-star speaking cast, mostly from the political right. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox as well as former Utah congressman and current Fox News personality Jason Chaffetz are all on the agenda.
The conference is scheduled for July 28-30 at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.