The names, “American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)” and “National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)” are enough – especially in the relatively bureaucratic-free summertime – to send most normal people fleeing from the room.
Let’s add in this one, just to hear the door slam: “Council of State Governments.”
These are the organizations sponsoring annual soirees where Colorado lawmakers have recently been off conventioneering. Both claim to be bipartisan, but they couldn’t be more different in approach and membership. While ALEC is comprised of lawmakers, as well as special interest groups like tobacco and pharmaceutical and big oil, the NCSL’s membership is restricted to people who actually get elected to public office.
There’s more.On Monday, Colorado Confidential detailed the July 25-29 ALEC convention, to which at least 10 Republican representatives from Colorado traveled to Philadelphia.
It is unclear exactly how their trips were financed, and it is also unclear which Colorado state senators joined the delegation. State Sen. Ron May, who is the state chairman of ALEC, did not respond to numerous phone calls and e-mails seeking the names of those who went and other details – including how it was funded. In the past, Colorado lawmakers raised money from lobbyists representing special interest groups to pay for the travel.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual conference convened a week later in Boston. There, an estimated 1,800 state lawmakers, 2,000 staffers, and several thousand more individuals representing special interest and government groups gathered to talk policy, hear (separate) speeches by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and United States Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and, among other things, stage a mock Tea Party in Boston Harbor to protest unfunded federal mandates. (They didn’t actually throw tea into the harbor.)
According to spokeswomen from Colorado’s House and Senate Majority offices, unlike the ALEC conference, the state paid to offset costs to send lawmakers to Boston. This year’s Colorado delegation included the following lawmakers:
Representatives Debbie Benefield (D) Alice Borodkin (D), Michael Garcia (D) Andy Kerr (D) Jeanne Labuda (D), Larry Liston (R), Tom Massey (R), Michael Merrifield (D), Ellen Roberts (R), Judy Solano (D), Debbie Stafford (R), Nancy Todd (D) and Glenn Vaad (R).
Colorado’s Senate delegation was comprised of all Democrats this year, and included; Peter Groff, Bob Bacon, Suzanne Williams, Ron Tupa, Bob Hagedorn, Gail Schwartz, Betty Boyd and John Morse. The attendees were required to get approval from leadership to go to the conference, and the state covered the lawmakers’ airfare, hotel, transportation and registration fees.
Katie Reinish, spokeswoman for the House Democrats, said that the state is subsidizing members to go to Boston via its travel budget – a final cost will not be available until after all reimbursement receipts have been submitted and approved.
The Democrats opted not to pay to send anyone to the ALEC conference, she said. As noted earlier, in years past travel costs are offset by special interest groups that help fund ALEC, including chemical, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies.
“The majority has not been cozy with these groups, and I don’t know that we’d go out of our way to attend a conference held by special interest groups,” Reinish said. “We pride ourselves on working for the public interest, not special interests.”
Sen. Ken Gordon, Colorado’s Senate Majority Leader, said that there was some discussion about convention travel in general this year – including questions over whether it would be appropriate for ALEC’s corporate contributors to pay the airplane fare for some lawmakers to travel to Philadelphia.
“We even had this problem with NCSL meetings,” Gordon said. “There’s a lot of ancillary events that are sponsored by private businesses, and my advice was, `don’t go to those events.’ He further advised his colleagues, he said, to not accept free dinners from private companies while they were in Boston, but instead pay for their own dinners.
In a separate Monday story, Colorado Confidential detailed ALEC – a virtual who’s who of corporate America. All told, an estimated $5 million a year is pumped by special interests into the organization, which brings them together with mostly-conservative lawmakers to craft “model legislation” to take back to their home states. The organization is responsible for bringing uniform laws that affect millions of citizens throughout the United States – on issues ranging from private prisons to school vouchers to environmental and public health issues.
This week, Bill Wyatt, director of media relations for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), described the differences between ALEC and his organization.
ALEC, Wyatt notes, is an individual member organization – which means that lobbyists and corporations and special interest groups can buy their way to the table. By contrast NCSL membership is restricted to lawmakers and legislative staff of all 50 states. When you get elected, you are automatically a member.
“[With ALEC], anybody who has the money to pony up can sit side-by-side with legislators and vote on policy and model legislation,” Wyatt said. “That doesn’t work at NCSL. Our legislators decide on legislative policy.”
That’s not to say that people representing special interest groups don’t show up to the conferences – they just don’t have the ability to join as members – or in on votes taken on issues within the organization, he said.
The NCSL conferences also don’t employ a “model legislation” strategy like that of ALEC’s. Rather, Wyatt said, lawmakers from both parties gather to talk about pressing state issues, which this year included health care reform, the REAL ID Act, redistricting, children’s health insurance and divestment from Iran, North Korea and the Sudan.
Yet a third organization of state lawmakers also meets annually to talk about policy issues. Like the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council for State Governments (CSG) is not funded by special interest dollars.
Several Colorado lawmakers have so far been cleared to attend this year’s regional CSG meeting Sept. 16-19 in Jackson, Wyoming. They include: Reps. Bob Gardner (R), Dan Gibbs (D), Mary Hodge (D) and Dianne Primavera (D).
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org