OPINION

Stop ALEC's influence in Iowa

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
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I am not, I have never been, and I never will be a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC. I must begin with this stated fact, because despite a number of communications from my office to their organization telling them I do not wish to be a member (and neither do any other Democrats in the statehouse), ALEC still counts me as one of their own, along with all 150 of my colleagues in the Iowa Legislature.

ALEC is holding myself and others in the legislature as members of their organization, against our will. Unfortunately, this bizarre membership discrepancy is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the secretive influence of ALEC.

What is ALEC, and why would I want to avoid association with their organization? It is a group of like-minded conservative legislators from across the country, who exchange information and come up with ideas to take back to their statehouses. That may sound harmless, but there’s one other important group within ALEC: corporate funders.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, those funders, representing corporations and far right foundations, receive an equal vote with elected officials at private ALEC meetings. The lobbyists and elected officials write laws, and vote to decide which of their ideas will become ‘model’ legislation that will then be introduced at the state level. If the lobbyists don’t approve, it doesn’t become an ALEC ‘model’ policy. After the bills are introduced and passed into law, ALEC corporations send donations to the campaigns of those legislators who worked with them — to keep them coming back and to keep them supporting their secretive agenda.

This cozy relationship between legislators and ALEC funders is why the New York Times has called the group ‘stealth lobbyists’ and other reports have identified them as a ‘crypto-lobbying group.’ ALEC operates in secrecy and obscurity on behalf of a corporate agenda that doesn’t benefit everyday Iowans.

For the past several years, there has been an ongoing effort to expose the work of ALEC in Iowa and across the country. Groups like the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, People for the American Way, and locally, Progress Iowa, have all done extensive research on ALEC’S influence.

According to the latest report by Progress Iowa, Senator Joni Ernst (a former ALEC member), Governor Terry Branstad (a founding member of ALEC), and the state legislators serving in leadership positions in ALEC have received more than $563,000 in direct campaign donations from ALEC corporations. Most notably, ALEC members spent more than $4.2 million in independent expenditures to elect Senator Ernst in 2014.

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What do ALEC funders receive in exchange for their donations? Private access to legislators, who carry out their agenda here in Des Moines. In fact, House Republicans have spent $48,840 in Iowa taxpayer dollars going to these secret ALEC meetings, according to the Iowa House Finance Office.

Earlier this spring, Republicans in the Iowa House passed two ALEC model bills. One would strip away consumer protections by lowering the statute of repose for construction defects and another unworkable idea deals with state budgeting. They are both bad ideas and I voted against them.

Following the ALEC playbook, House Republicans have even refused to bring up a bipartisan minimum wage bill that has already passed the Iowa Senate. Since the last time a minimum-wage increase was approved in 2007 with 79 votes, there’s no question it would pass the House with bipartisan support again this year if Republicans would bring it up.

Because of the recent increased research and attention, we know more than we have in the past about ALEC. And the more our constituents know, the better informed we in the legislature become to fight back against ALEC’S influence. Thanks to efforts to hold ALEC accountable and expose their secretive influence across the country, their corporate membership may be on the decline.

Reports show that more than 100 corporate members have left ALEC, forcing a budget crisis for the organization. Recently even more companies have left the organization; including Google, eBay, Yahoo, and Facebook, among others. Instead of rethinking the nature of their organization, ALEC has doubled-down by discussing moving to attract new corporate industries, and recently created an effort to influence local government officials en masse and advance ALEC’S agenda, with a new organization called the American City County Exchange (ACCE). ACCE will do to city and county governments what ALEC has done to state legislatures across the country.

Iowans must remain on watch as ALEC, and now ACCE, attempt to influence our democratic process behind closed doors. If read about a bill that is being debated, or an idea being discussed at your city council or local school board, you should contact your elected official and ask if ALEC or ACCE is involved. The more we can spread information about their influence, the weaker they will become. As much work has been done to expose their efforts, there still is much we don’t know. If nothing else, perhaps we can at least put to rest the question of who is a member of ALEC, and who is not.

• Mark Smith is a State Representative and Democratic Leader in the Iowa House of Representatives. Comments: mark.smith@legis.iowa.gov

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