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During the early part of her two-plus decades in the state Legislature, retired Republican Sen. Pat Pariseau remembers being just one of a handful of Minnesota legislators who could call themselves members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC’s influence surges in Minnesota

Former GOP Rep. Laura Brod, a one-time state chair of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, is credited with recruiting members in Minnesota. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Coalition of conservative legislators, corporate sponsors pushes measures like photo ID

During the early part of her two-plus decades in the state Legislature, retired Republican Sen. Pat Pariseau remembers being just one of a handful of Minnesota legislators who could call themselves members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

By Pariseau’s account, ALEC — a decidedly conservative national organization that unites lawmakers with corporate sponsors to draft legislation — was on “the right side of a lot of issues” being worked on across the country. And although it took time, the group grew. “They really got cohesive,” she said, “and when they did, they got a lot of stuff done.”

Today the organization boasts nearly 300 corporate sponsors and a membership of 2,000 state legislators across the country. Its rising profile received a boost from the 2010 election, as Republicans took hold of state legislatures and ALEC alums like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker took governorships in key states last fall. According to the group’s website, more than 1,000 ALEC-approved bills are introduced in legislatures across the nation each year, of which about 20 percent are inked into law books. Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.

ALEC recently came into the spotlight after a data dump from the nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause shed new light on the group and its “model bills,” which have flooded into state legislatures in the past year. That included legislation in Minnesota to eliminate greenhouse gas reduction goals and install a photo identification requirement at the voting booth.

In Minnesota, the group played a relatively small role until the early 2000s, when former Rep. Laura Brod, a popular member of the House GOP caucus and former ALEC state chairwoman, began aggressively recruiting members. And this session — with Republicans in control of both Minnesota’s legislative chambers for the first time in the modern era — the group’s popularity has grown. What was just a handful of ALEC participants in the state several decades ago is now closer to 30 sitting members in the statehouse. The group’s prominence has been bolstered by a massive incoming freshman class, many of whom had an appetite for ALEC’s push against the federal health care law.

“I think the mood is different today than it was 20 years ago,” said former Independent Republican Rep. Bill Schreiber, who is now a lobbyist. He chose not to participate in ALEC during his time at the Legislature. “For those of us who were engaged in the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), it was always, how do we make government work better? What do we do to make things more efficient? It wasn’t a matter of bashing government and saying what government does is wrong. I think there’s been a bit of a hostile tone toward government coming from the ALEC side.”

Offering a ‘different philosophical viewpoint’

ALEC was formed in the fall of 1973 under the guidance of the Washington-based American Conservative Union. It was the brainchild of a slew of conservative activists, including Paul Weyrich, a key figure in the New Right who also co-founded conservative think tanks the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. Many were frustrated by recent Republican losses at the polls.

At the first ALEC conference in 1974, then-New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thompson told about 400 legislators, mostly Republicans, that they needed to “drastically” cut the “escalating of spending” at all levels of government, according to an Associated Press story. He also urged the group of conservative legislators to restore the balance of “progress and environmental concerns so that a seriously crippled economy can once again move America forward.”

Today ALEC calls itself on its website the largest nonpartisan individual membership association in the country, whose task forces have “considered, written and approved hundreds of model bills on a wide range of issues, model legislation that will frame the debate today and far into the future.” Tougher prison sentencing laws, restrictions on states’ efforts to collect or increase taxes and special education vouchers join the Arizona immigration law as successful ALEC pushes.

Some compare the group to other national organizations for legislators, like the NCSL and the Council of State Governments, albeit with a conservative philosophical bent. But its actions are secretive (ALEC does not list registered legislators) and its methods unorthodox. The group is registered as a nonprofit, meaning corporate sponsors can donate (and write off their donations) and be involved in the group’s causes, but they do not have to disclose their activity. Some critics argue their work is similar to lobbying, which would require the companies to disclose what they are lobbying for and how much they are spending to do so.

But ALEC filled a void for some legislators who felt other national groups were too liberal. “We had been in the minority for a long time, and the thought was the NCSL was considerably more left-leaning,” said former Republican legislator Kevin Goodno, who is now a lobbyist. Goodno said he attended one conference in the early 1990s, but he didn’t find the group’s model legislation helpful for his own work on health care in Minnesota. “They represent a different philosophical viewpoint. The reason people sought them out was people did have that conservative viewpoint, and they felt that other organizations were dominated by cities or metropolitan areas that had more of a liberal viewpoint, and this was a balance to that.”

A slow start in Minnesota

In the early years of the group, there was little to no presence in Minnesota. Former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe recalls the group coming on his radar in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“I was never particularly supportive of it,” the former DFL senator said, “because there were two national legislative organizations that we attended already, the NCSL and the Council of State Governments, and I thought that was plenty. And ALEC seemed to have a decidedly conservative philosophic bent. I felt it wasn’t our place to pick a philosophy with these national groups.”

Former DFL Speaker of the House Bob Vanasek took a different position: He approved several members to attend ALEC’s yearly conventions with expenses covered. “ALEC certainly has a right to exist, and legislators certainly have a right to participate in it,” he said. But few legislators signed up at the time, and Vanasek said he did not see evidence that the national group was influencing legislation in St. Paul.

Former Republican Reps. Ken Wolf, Barb Sykora, Gary Shafer, Adolph Kvam and Linda Runbeck (during her previous term in the Legislature) were all said to be members of ALEC.

Schreiber, who represented Brooklyn Park in the 1970s and 1980s, said ALEC made some legislators nervous because of its corporate sponsorship. “ALEC is more funded by the private sector,” he noted. “Some legislators became nervous about the source of funding, whereas NCSL is a voluntary organization of state legislatures who have money coming in from public entities versus private corporations,” he said.

Former Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day said that while he never attended any conferences himself, several of the more conservative members of his caucus — Pariseau and current GOP Sen. Gen Olson — regularly attended the conferences. Olson was one of the state chairs of the group at the time. But the simple fact that they were in the minority meant the so-called “model bills” were not likely to go far.

“If you talk to the Republicans now that are going to those conferences, they have some influence,” he said. “They weren’t [going] when I was there, because we were in the minority. It didn’t make a difference what we wanted, because it wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Pariseau, a Republican senator from Farmington who retired in 2010, said she found the conferences useful. “You knew people from other states, and we all came at it from different standpoints,” she said. “You can cover a lot of ground that way.”

Pariseau said she carried legislation back to Minnesota from ALEC conferences, including a conceal-and-carry gun bill. “All the groups had something to share with others,” she remembered. “As we got to know each other, we had committees in common, and the problems that came up were the same. There was some sharing of a lot of those touchy things and how to proceed with those.”

Pariseau recalls corporate sponsors in attendance.

“They did interact with the members as well, although not as a forcible thing,” she said. “They provided materials. Their own mission as a company might have been in complete conflict or no conflict with some of the proposals at the conference, so they made their case.”

Promotion, new majorities boosted membership

The group didn’t really start gaining traction in Minnesota until the early 2000s, when Brod, a GOP House member who now serves on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, became a state chairwoman for the group and started recruiting candidates.

“We had really had no one in Minnesota that was involved over the years,” a GOP lobbyist said, “but she took it on herself to get more Republicans engaged in Minnesota, and the result of that is we have quite a few members now in the state. She was really active in getting members to go out to these conferences.” (Brod did not return calls from Capitol Report seeking comment for this story.)

GOP state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, who is the current Minnesota state chairwoman for ALEC, recently told the Minnesota Independent that there are about 30 Republican legislators in the state who are members of ALEC.

“All it takes is someone in the caucus promoting it to really catch on,” said lobbyist Tom Hanson, who was budget commissioner under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and before that was House GOP legislative director under former Speaker Steve Sviggum.

GOP Rep. and failed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer was part of an ALEC-inspired push to ban the individual mandate on health insurance purchases from the federal health care law via a state constitutional amendment. Similar proposals were brought in other state legislatures, including Arizona and Georgia. ALEC’s move to push back against the federal health care law, the Republican lobbyist said, is another reason the group’s numbers have spiked in the new Republican majorities.

The group has created “The State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare” and boasts on its site that since 2005, 38 states have enacted model legislation developed by the group’s HHS Task Force. Among ALEC’s model bills in the health and human services area is the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act, which was introduced in Minnesota this session by GOP Senate HHS Chairman David Hann.

Despite the unfriendly media attention ALEC has received recently, it’s unlikely that the ranks in the Minnesota Legislature will dwindle anytime soon, one GOP operative said.

“[Republican lawmakers] really feel like this group represents what they believe in, what they are trying to accomplish,” the source said, “and I only think you’re going to see their numbers grow next year as the focus shifts to policy issues instead of the budget. I think only [the 2012 election] can bring [ALEC’s] numbers down.”

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