Instead of conspiracy, Ivory looks at ALEC as a philosophical ally. The council was founded on the pillars of limited government, free markets and federalism “on which our nation was established,” Ivory says.
In the 2012 session, Ivory sponsored and passed House Bill 148, the Transfer of Public Lands Act. The bill orders the federal government to turn over to the state most public lands, except national parks, by 2014. The bill set aside $3 million for current and future lawsuits.
Ivory simply believes the federal government reneged on a promise to Western states. Federal lands were supposed to be ceded to states upon admission to the union.
So, it goes without saying that Ivory found himself on ALEC’s federalism task force. It’s the best place to trade ideas on getting the feds out of the states’ hair and, given the success of Ivory’s bill, his legislation is likely to become an ALEC model.
“It’s the duty of states to be an external check of unrestrained government,” Ivory says. “It was never intended that Congress, by itself, would restrain itself.”
Indeed, most Americans think of the executive, legislative and judicial systems as being the ultimate check-and-balance for government. ALEC, Ivory and the conservatives are here to remind you that the states are in this, too, and they play a bigger part than Congress itself.
“Congress is supreme only in the powers delegated to it; the states are supreme in all else,” Ivory says.
This new federalism has no love lost for Congress, which gets wrapped up in fear and loathing as the federal behemoth.
Ivory even has an interesting take on Chief Justice John Roberts’ recent health-care opinion. What the public is missing, he says, is Roberts’ admonition to the states, almost daring them not to comply with federal mandates. “In his opinion, he said, in our system, the states have the prerogative of refusing to comply,” Ivory says.
To Geddes, that sounds a lot like a parallel government. “Everybody thinks it’s about states’ rights, so they’ve formed this other organization that’s running parallel to the government,” she says.
THE PRIVATE ROAD TO TRANSPARENCY
Niederhauser, for one, stands proud and loud as an ALEC devotee. He recently wrote an op-ed column for The Deseret News, explaining his stand. “The role ALEC plays facilitating the conversation around pro-growth, limited government principles and developing model legislation that advance free-market ideals has never been needed more than today,” he wrote. “We are at a crossroads and more attention needs to be paid to policies that will generate jobs and lower taxes for citizens. … The economic policies supported by ALEC have kept Utah competitive, creating and keeping jobs in our state and serving as a model for other states to follow.”
That’s not to say that the National Council of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments don’t provide model legislation, too. But in both cases, their legislation is staff-driven. ALEC passes around laws from state to state, with the helping hands of corporate America. The state will pay for a legislator’s travel to one of the three organizations every year.
Legislators themselves pay only $50 a year to join ALEC, whose revenues come primarily from for-profit corporations. According to the anti-ALEC website ALEC Exposed, 98.6 percent of ALEC’s $6.3 million in revenues come from sources other than legislators. ALEC representatives would not return calls for this article. CBS News reports that the 300 companies sponsoring ALEC contribute most of its operating costs.
NCSL has a general fund of $16.8 million, and in 2010, legislatures accounted for $10 million of that. Utah pays dues for every person in the Legislature, amounting to some $130,000 a year, Niederhauser says. NCSL is so important, he says, that Utah’s legislative Research and General Counsel staff often seek it out for information.
ALEC, on the other hand, doesn’t have a lot of research to cull from, Niederhauser says, but it is probably the most prolific in creating model legislation—legislation formulated by task forces, from which the public is barred.
That makes his transparency bill, modeled from a 2007 Kansas concept, just a bit ironic. Kansas took its bill to ALEC, which made it model legislation. Niederhauser used that model, along with research from NCSL, to draft financial-transparency legislation in 2008. Niederhauser’s bill created the Utah Public Finance Website, which posts public financial information provided by state entities. “Now you can see where all the tax dollars are going,” he says.
THIS COUNTRY WAS BUILT ON CAPITALISM
Utah is at the forefront of ALEC model legislation, for good reason. Their values collide.
Bill Barton was elected to the Utah Senate in 1978, and within a few years embraced his conservative leanings and a fledgling organization called ALEC. ALEC sent out information to state legislators asking them to join, but it was slow going.
“No other member of our Legislature wanted to join, so I became state chair to get other members involved,” he says. The first ALEC convention brought in about 300 people, and Barton was responsible for bringing 45 of the then-105 legislators into the fold.
This year, there could be as many as 3,000 ALEC supporters at the Grand America Hotel in late July.
In 1989, ALEC asked Barton to join the national board. He found it all quite interesting. “We would sit in a committee with the private sectors and try to solve problems without government,” Barton says.
All this goes back to the founding of the country, he says. “What really built it? It was not the government that built it, but people in search of profit and things people wanted to buy from them that fueled economic growth.”
Profit is indeed what it’s all about, and Barton is troubled by all the negative reaction. He went on to the Deseret News website just to offer some positive reinforcement to Niederhauser, whose editorial was getting summarily slammed in comments—things like, “ALEC is a front group for billionaires,” and “It is a worrisome marriage of corporations and politicians, which seems to normalize a kind of corruption of the legislative process.”
The positive comments? “It becomes more clear why almost half of the American voting public still support President Obama and his failed policies,” and “Do liberals not realize that wealthy people have to have businesses that provide jobs so that they can remain wealthy?”
PAINTING A PRETTY PICTURE
With all the acrimony comes an expectation of protest outside the upcoming conference. Barton hopes it’s civil. Ivory says he recalls two or three “dressed in unusual outfits” protesting at a North Carolina conference.
But Salt Lake City’s ALEC “Welcoming Committee”—a coalition of detractors, including the Revolutionary Students Union, United for Social Justice, Peaceful Uprising, Utah Tar Sands Resistance and some Occupiers—is gearing up for something more. At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 18, the committee’s Raphael Cordray will present her take on ALEC in a PowerPoint presentation at the Salt Lake City Main Library, Conference Room C.
“We’ve ID’d all the members in Utah and the task forces—the different areas of democracy they attack,” she says. There are at least 20 representatives and 15 senators who belong.
Meanwhile, ALEC delegates will be treated to a special performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a reception at the new Natural History Museum of Utah and a peculiar “cigar reception,” not to mention a speech by the National Journal’s Charlie Cook. Gov. Gary Herbert will also welcome ALEC to Utah.
Cordray thinks the red-carpet treatment is a “subtle way to get people from around the country to see Mormonism in a flattering light—to help Romney.” Religion has been an underlying issue in Romney’s campaign, and Cordray believes it’s important for Utah to “paint a pretty picture.”
She first became interested in ALEC through her environmental activism. She found the group’s model legislation to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency in its focus on usurping rules for fracking and polluting water and its support of big fossil-fuel industries. “I quickly saw they’re also pushing legislation to question global warming,” she says.
ALEC is nothing if not flexible. Once a friend of tobacco interests, ALEC could no longer deny the cancer link and instead took to global warming as a new cause to support. “They switched over to another false science,” Cordray says.
ALEC has come under fire nationally for its efforts to stifle voting, most specifically through voter I.D. laws. Utah now requires a photo I.D. to cast a ballot and halts voter registration 30 days prior to an election. The national and state League of Women Voters have fought attempts to limit voting. MSNBC recently aired a telling video of Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai saying that a just-passed voter I.D. law in his state “would allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win Pennsylvania.”