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Alaska lawmakers will likely see more bills inspired by outside groups

  • The Anchorage Daily News
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, at 6:04 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, at 1:19 p.m.

— Among the hundreds of bills that will be introduced into the 28th Legislature over the next two years, it's almost certain that some will be inspired or written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive legislation mill that combines conservative thought with corporate interests.

That's what happened in the previous Legislature, when ALEC-connected legislators sponsored or supported bills that would end collective bargaining rights for public employees, turn Alaska into a "right-to-work" state, require photo IDs for voters and remove any "duty to retreat" when using deadly force in a public place.

None of those passed and only one had hearings, but that was before Alaska Republicans achieved one-party rule in the Capitol in the November election.

For the new year, ALEC's chairman in Alaska, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, sent letters to legislators after the election, urging them to join. Though a number of nonpartisan organizations offer policy analysis and model legislation, like the Council of State Governments or the National Conference of State Legislatures, none understands like ALEC the importance of legislatures "in ensuring that our respective states are thriving in the coming years," Keller wrote.

But though he was pushing for increased membership among the elected officials, in an interview, he declined to name current members, saying he didn't have the information at hand.

"I would say there's not over a half dozen members," he said.

That might be an underestimate. ALEC itself doesn't identify its legislative members, but the website ALECexposed.org, run by nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, came up with a list from 2011 directories obtained by Common Cause, a liberal-leaning nonprofit watchdog. They show the membership to be a powerful bunch. Nearly everyone on the lists from Alaska who is returning to the Legislature in 2013 will be chairs of standing committees or finance committee members.

In the House, they are Keller and Reps. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, and Bob Lynn and Mia Costello, both Anchorage Republicans. Senators are John Coghill, R-North Pole; Fred Dyson and Anna Fairclough, both Eagle River Republicans; and Anchorage Republicans Catherine Giessel and Lesil McGuire (McGuire says she no longer belongs). Republican Sen. Pete Kelly, newly elected from Fairbanks, was the ALEC state chair in 1999 during a previous stint in the Senate, the website said. State records show that Anchorage Rep. Charisse Millett, also a Republican, attended ALEC's 2011 annual convention in New Orleans.

ALEC says it has a library of 1,000 model bills that it shares with its members from state legislatures throughout the country, but not the public. The bills were written in task forces attended by state legislators, including some from Alaska, and businesses with interests in the subject. Corporations also underwrite ALEC's operations and sometimes provide "scholarships" for legislators to attend conferences, yet they don't report their activities as lobbying.

A 'PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP'

"American Legislative Exchange Council is a public-private partnership between industry and legislators. That's probably the unique side of it -- you have private people bringing their concerns to public officials," said Coghill, the incoming Senate majority leader who will also chair the judiciary committee. Liberals have their think tanks like the Ford or Casey foundations, he said, while ALEC blends business and policy.

To Coghill, that relationship is good thing. To others, it's a back door for powerful interests such as gun manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, private educators and corporate prisons to influence laws in state houses across the country without leaving a fingerprint.

When conservative measures spring up in state legislatures, such as the "Stand Your Ground" bill made infamous in Florida with the killing of Trayvon Martin, or bills requiring voters to present photo IDs, there's a good chance that they were promoted at ALEC conferences. Forms of both measures have been introduced in Alaska's Legislature, though the sponsors say the texts of their bills did not come from ALEC directly.

Critics say such bills are often "solutions in search of problems" because they stem from national agendas, not responses to local concerns. Anchorage Rep. Lynn, an ALEC member and chief supporter here of photo IDs for voters, has said he knows of no cases of voter fraud in Alaska that his measure would have prevented, but proposed the law as a precaution just in case.

Where photo ID laws have been enacted in other states, they've been cited as tools to suppress voting among minorities, college students and the elderly -- blocs that tend to vote Democratic more often than Republican.

Keller said he wasn't aware of any ALEC-inspired legislation that would be introduced in the Alaska Legislature this year or next. Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, the sponsor of the 2011 Stand Your Ground bill, which died in the Senate, said last spring he would keep reintroducing it until it passed.

RENEWABLE ENERGY ROLL BACKS

Nick Surgey, staff counsel for Common Cause, said one hot ALEC issue is an effort pushed by the coal industry and other traditional energy sources to roll back renewable energy targets and mandates adopted by some 30 states, including Alaska.

Backers of the roll-back call the targets a "tax" on power consumers who might have to pay more, at least in the short term, because the capital costs can be expensive. But supporters say they will reduce carbon emissions, establish 21st-century industries in the United States and make the country less reliant on imports.

For McGuire, whose strong support of renewables ended up in a bill passed by the Legislature in 2010, her experiences on the issue with ALEC soured her on the group. She attended the 2009 ALEC convention in Memphis.

McGuire said industry experts she met were helpful when it came to providing information on hydrocarbon development. But when the subject turned to any other energy source -- wind, hydro, tidal, solar, geothermal -- "they were very myopic," she said.

"Their views certainly were not reflective of the broad-based concerns that a place like Alaska would need to consider," she said. "I worked for years on both responsible hydrocarbon development but also renewable energy development, and the two ought to proceed side by side."

Developing hydrocarbons -- oil, coal and gas -- makes great sense as a revenue base, she said. But for local consumption, especially in rural Alaska, "wherever you can find a resource that provides power to a community that is renewable, that's certainly the one you want," she said. "That's the kind of thinking that ALEC doesn't accept."

ALEC's spokeswoman, Kaitlyn Buss, said in an email that she would make someone available from the organization for an interview, then stopped responding to messages.

PRIVACY ADVOCATE HITS ROADBLOCK

Jason Giaimo came to the Alaska Legislature with a problem: in 2008, he had passed two of the four tests to become a certified public accountant, but when he showed up for the third, he was told he would have to provide his fingerprints as proof of his identity. An Alaska drivers license or U.S. passport would no longer suffice.

Giaimo refused to give his fingerprints on principle, and then it became a cause when he learned his prints would have ended up with a "data mining" company that collects and sells private information on people.

"It's an evil, shady alliance and I'm doing my best to expose it," he said in a recent interview.

In 2011, after consulting with Giaimo and other privacy advocates, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, introduced Senate Bill 98 to prevent the sale of any "biometric" information from one company to another. It would only allow fingerprinting and retinal scans for the specific purpose they were sought -- in Giaimo's case, identifying him -- and permit people to present alternate IDs if they objected to giving biometric data. When the specific purpose was accomplished, the data had to be destroyed.

Wielechowski's bill got 10 cosponsors in the Senate, including current and former ALEC members Coghill, McGuire, Dyson and Giessel. It passed the Senate 20-0 on April 14, 2011 and Wielechowski thought it would also sail through the House. House leaders referred it to the Health and Social Services committee, chaired by Keller, where it sat until late in the session in 2012.

"There was a lot to that bill -- it wasn't as straightforward as it looked," Keller said in an interview. In Keller's committee, a representative from the conservative Cato Institute testified that the bill imposed burdensome regulation on industry.

The bill was voted out of Keller's committee three days before the House adjourned and died before it got to its next committee. Keller said he would refer the bill to ALEC for vetting so the people "that have an interest, a huge spectrum," could comment. In an email to a supporter of the bill, Keller said it offered "potentially overreaching solutions that have not been vetted by all concerns."

Until then, Giaimo said, he had not heard of ALEC.

"I can't imagine any good reason that we would wait or care what they thought about this bill that's from Alaska for Alaskans," he said. "Almost 100 percent of every single person I've spoken with in the last four years, whether they be government or political types or Republicans, Democrats -- they all support this. It's these international data mining companies and the biometrics industry -- these people that are making millions of dollars off this data ... that are trying to crush privacy movements like this."

Giaimo said he is hopeful the biometrics bill will be reintroduced again in 2013 and will pass this time.

STAND YOUR GROUND

ALEC's role in promoting Florida's Stand Your Ground legislation around the country emerged in a burst of media coverage after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in early 2012. Zimmerman has cited the law in his defense and is set for trial on second-degree murder in 2013. The case became highly politicized and opponents of the law pressured corporate members of ALEC to withdraw their sponsorships. More than 40 cut ties, according to the nonprofit Source Watch, including Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kraft and McDonalds. Hundreds stayed with the organization, including Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips.

Dyson said he was curious to see whether there were lingering effects on ALEC when he traveled to Washington, D.C., in November to attend the organization's post-election policy summit. Some 800 legislators were there, Dyson said, and ALEC reported the return of some of the corporations that had dropped their memberships.

Dyson said he got a lot out of the policy summit precisely because of business representatives who were there. He was interested, for example, in what lessons were learned by utilities after the big East Coast storms and found utility managers with good information, he said.

That's one of the reasons he values his membership, he said. He also likes ALEC's philosophy.

"They're committed to limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty," he said. On a practical level, the group makes the legislative process run smoother, he said.

"The value to me, is when people call up and they want me to champion some issue, I'm always asking the question -- have other jurisdictions done this? -- so we don't have to plow new ground. I want to know what the consequences have been," he said. ALEC is one of the organizations that can provide that information, he said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com.

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