One-third of Wisconsin’s lawmakers are members of a controversial pro-business group that champions free-market policies and helps write state legislation, newly revealed documents show.
The internal records of the American Legislative Exchange Council, composed of lawmakers and high-powered business officials, were made public Tuesday by the Guardian newspaper of London and shed light on the group’s operations and its relationship with member lawmakers around the country.
Among the 53 pages of leaked documents from ALEC’s August meeting in Chicago is a state-by-state list that says 43 of Wisconsin’s 133 lawmakers are members of the group. The document doesn’t name the lawmakers.
One document details a proposed job description for state lawmakers who serve as state chairmen of ALEC. Although group officials and lawmakers say the description was rejected by ALEC members, it raises questions about the exact roles lawmakers play in the organization.
An ALEC spokeswoman didn’t respond Wednesday to detailed questions about the organization and its role in influencing legislation.
The staff of state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, state chairman for ALEC, said he was unavailable for comment Wednesday. The Washington, D.C.-based ALEC claims 1,800 state lawmakers as members and a roughly $7 million annual budget.
The group also has support in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation. Among the speakers at this week’s ALEC winter meeting in Washington, D.C., are U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh.
ALEC brings together interest groups and corporate officials and state lawmakers to pursue “free market, small government and federalism” legislation that in recent years has expanded to include self-defense, anti-immigration and voter ID laws.
In the 2011-12 session, ALEC model legislation was the basis for 32 bills or budget provisions, 21 of which were passed and two that were vetoed in Wisconsin, according to the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, which has been monitoring ALEC for two years and has filed several complaints and lawsuits against the group or lawmakers.
One lawsuit brought against Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, seeking ALEC-related records is in settlement negotiations, according to center officials. Vukmir was installed this week as ALEC’s second vice chairwoman.
CMD tied ALEC to laws in Wisconsin that among other things limit corporate liability for harm to consumers, require that residents present photo identification to vote and require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to pass tax increases. Wisconsin’s voter ID law is currently tied up in the courts.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, has filed a complaint with the IRS charging that the nonprofit ALEC is engaged in lobbying activity that violates its tax-exempt status. On Wednesday, Pocan, who joined ALEC while serving in the Wisconsin Legislature, described it as “nothing more than a corporate-funded dating group” in which lawmakers socialize and strategize with business interests to introduce model legislation to benefit their industries.
The records reveal that ALEC has set up a separate group called the Jeffersonian Project to avoid running afoul of state ethics laws and the IRS. One internal document written by ALEC attorney Alan P. Dye in June stated, “Though we do not believe that any activity carried on by ALEC is lobbying, the IRS could disagree.”
The Government Accountability Board has found that the group’s corporate sponsors could pay for lawmakers’ trips to ALEC meetings so long as officials can show that the costs incurred “were primarily for the benefit of the state” and that such financial assistance is either reported on the lawmaker’s annual financial disclosure form or as a campaign contribution.
The documents obtained by the Guardian also include a proposed loyalty pledge that ALEC spokeswoman Molly Fuhs said was rejected.
The proposal called for all state chairmen to sign a three-page agreement pledging, among other things, “I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first.”
Curt David, an aide for state Rep. Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, who was ALEC’s Wisconsin state chairman in August, said in an email, “Rep. Kramer takes an oath of office every session. That’s his first priority.”
Said Fuhs: “The proposed state chair agreement was not adopted; no such agreement exists. ALEC would never suggest a state legislator hold its interest above those of their constituents.”
A Vukmir spokesman also said the proposal was rejected. In an email, Vukmir said the
corporate and legislative leadership of the organization felt it was “unnecessary.”
“Basically, the members didn’t like it,” Vukmir said.
But Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy said the proposal, although reportedly rejected, is important in understanding the role ALEC seeks to play in Wisconsin and beyond.
“I still think the pledge is significant in that it reflects the attitude that ALEC has towards what relationship state legislators are supposed to have with ALEC ... that the interests of ALEC are supposed to come first,” said Fischer, general counsel for the center.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, attended ALEC’s August meeting to learn how the group works. She said ALEC “wines and dines” lawmakers, who worked directly with corporate officials to write pro-business bills for introduction in state legislatures across the country.
“We were treated as the foot soldiers of ALEC, and being told to be even more aggressive” in pushing its agenda, Taylor said. “They’re drafting these model bills that they want you to pass. I’m not sure how that’s not lobbying.”
Another part of the rejected pledge would have required ALEC state chairmen to report any open-records requests involving ALEC.
ALEC has stamped its documents as exempt from state and federal openness laws, urged lawmakers to use private emails and exchanged documents with elected officials though online drop boxes that delete them after 72 hours, according to a 2012 lawsuit filed by CMD and Common Cause in Wisconsin against five GOP lawmakers. The case ended when the five agreed to turn over ALEC-related records to the group.
In June, the two groups sued Vukmir after she rejected their request for ALEC-related records from her office. Vukmir has claimed legislative immunity from complying with the open-records law while the Legislature is in session. The two sides are currently negotiating a settlement, CMD’s executive director, Lisa Graves, said Wednesday.