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Common Cause complaint: ALEC skirting lobbying laws

ALEC describes itself as a charity that provides “workshops on current issues with leading experts, public figures, and elected officials.”

ALEC has been a target of nationwide protests, including this one in mid-March at the Capitol in Saint Paul.

Today Common Cause of Minnesota is filing complaints with two state agencies claiming the secretive right-wing policy incubator the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is in violation of state laws governing lobbying and charitable activities.

“Common Cause has discovered compelling evidence that ALEC is a corporate lobby masquerading as a charity,” Mike Dean, Common Cause’s local executive director, wrote in a letter to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. “ALEC’s primary purpose appears to be providing a vehicle for its corporate members to lobby state legislators and to deduct the cost of that activity as charitable contributions.”

ALEC is registered with Swanson’s office, which requires disclosures from certain types of nonprofits and philanthropic concerns, and has described itself as a charity that provides “workshops on current issues with leading experts, public figures, and elected officials.”

Common Cause’s local affiliate today also filed a complaint with the state Board of Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure charging that ALEC has skirted Minnesota law requiring lobbyists to register with the state and disclose their spending.

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ALEC has long maintained that it does not engage in lobbying, rather that it sponsors educational meetings where state lawmakers can exchange ideas about public policy with representatives of corporations and think tanks. It bills itself as a membership organization; private sector members pay annual dues ranging from $7,000-$25,000.

Officials pay $50

Elected officials pay just $50 and are given “scholarships” to cover the cost of junkets to luxury resorts — often with their families in tow. They come home with model bills ranging from “reforms” desired by its corporate members to ideological efforts such as voter ID and the so-called Castle Doctrine or “shoot-first” law used to justify the killing of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

Nearly 40 years old, until recently ALEC operated largely in secrecy. Much of the evidence submitted by Common Cause’s local chapter comes from a national complaint its parent organization recently filed with the Internal Revenue Service arguing that ALEC has abused its tax-exempt status as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit, misrepresenting its activities and allowing its corporate members to write off their hefty dues as charitable donations instead of lobbying expenditures.

“The ALEC conferences are nothing more than a forum for tax-subsidized lobbying,” the complaint lodged with the IRS asserts. If the agency failed to act, the complaint continued, “any lobbying organization could simply form a nonprofit arm, invite legislators to join for a nominal membership fee and conduct tax-exempt lobbying without any restrictions.”

Advocates are still combing through the 4,000 documents submitted in association with that complaint for information about ALEC’s members and inner workings. In the wake of the exhibits’ release, a number of high-profile corporations have dropped their memberships.

Several ‘issue alert’ emails in MN

Among the exhibits attached to the Minnesota complaints are several 2011 “issue alert” e-mails (examples here, here, here and here) from ALEC’s policy task forces informing state lawmakers that bills they were scheduled to vote on were based on model legislation created by ALEC and urging approval. During this year’s legislative session, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed seven ALEC-crafted bills.

Three would have offered new protections to corporations being sued by consumers. In what has become a familiar sequence of events, when MinnPost recently reported on the measures in question, state lawmakers and local lobbyists were quick to insist that the bills had no connection to ALEC.

Common Cause’s local affiliate in January released a report containing side-by-side comparisons of ALEC model laws and a number of Minnesota bills that bear striking similarities. In all, the group estimates that some 60 ALEC-like measures were introduced here from 2011-2012.

Not registered to lobby in Minnesota

ALEC is not registered to lobby in Minnesota, even though it frequently sends lawmakers information on its policy priorities, including “issue alerts” such as the ones attached to the complaints, memos with talking points and other materials. It also tracks “problem bills” its members oppose and urges lawmakers to vote against them.

 “ALEC’s bylaws declare that its mission is to ‘formulate legislative action programs’ and to ‘disseminate model legislation and promote the introduction of companion bills in Congress and state legislatures,’ ” Common Cause asserted in its complaints. “ALEC also carefully tracks the progress of its legislation in statehouses across America, producing scorecards to measure its effectiveness in getting its bills enacted.

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“While these activities meet any reasonable definition of lobbying, ALEC insists that it does not lobby,” the group added in its letter to Swanson. “In fact, in their registration with the state Attorney General’s Office, ALEC describes their purpose to ‘Provide workshops on current issues with leading experts, public figures, and elected officials.’”

ALEC members met last week in North Carolina to continue discussing next year’s model legislation. Even though the group had tried to quell the corporate exodus and counter negative headlines by announcing it would suspend the task force that dealt with “non-economic” policies, the meeting generated controversy.

Delayed decision on fighting education standards

At the meeting, ALEC’s very active education policy task force voted to put off deciding whether to go forward with a legislative package that would bar states from adopting the Common Core Standards.

Originally an initiative of the National Governors Association, the standards are an effort to reintroduce rigor and relevance into the educational benchmarks many states use to define academic success. In an effort to avoid the sanctions that accompanied failing to show enough students testing as proficient under No Child Left Behind, many states had lowered the bar for passage.

(Minnesota was not one of them, and in fact increased the rigor of its standards during the relevant time period.)

The product of years of work by educators, not testing companies, two years ago the standards appeared headed for near-universal acceptance. A small but vocal number of policymakers have opposed them on ideological grounds, however, arguing that they constitute a federal intrusion into local control of schools and are a first step toward a national curriculum.

Kline opposes the standards

Minnesota’s Rep. John Kline, the Lakeville Republican who heads the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Education and the Workforce Committee, opposes the standards. A number of conservative education reformers whose agendas are typically similar to ALEC’s education platforms are in favor of Common Core.

Among the disgruntled groups is the American Principles Project, a nonprofit that advocates for religious liberties, parental rights and a return to the gold standard, among other things.  

“ALEC’s delay in endorsing the resolution is troubling and plays into the strategy of the multi-billion dollar private entities that are pushing the Common Core,” it complained in a press release Friday. “The resolution was approved by the ALEC Education Task Force overwhelmingly last December, and ALEC has discussed it at three of its national meetings.  The well-financed private entities and the federal government are moving forward with their implementation of the Common Core, and Americans have been cut out of the process.”

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Minnesota’s GOP lawmakers last year passed a bill barring state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius from implementing Common Core. The provision did not survive the 2011 special session. A similar effort this year was met by a veto.