Prairie Politics

State pays registration fees for 14 GOP lawmakers to attend ALEC conference in San Diego

Kansas Statehouse looking south at sunset. (January 22, 2014)
Kansas Statehouse looking south at sunset. (January 22, 2014) File photo

Fourteen Republican lawmakers are attending the annual ALEC conference in San Diego this week in part on the taxpayer’s dime.

It’s one of several conferences attended by lawmakers this summer.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has helped craft several pieces of legislation that have gained traction at the Kansas Statehouse in recent years. For example, the 2013 innovative school districts program, which exempts participating districts from certain state regulations, can be traced to a model bill from ALEC.

The annual conference, which is closed to the public, could generate more ideas that gain traction in Topeka.

Fourteen lawmakers had their registration fees paid for by the state at a total cost of $7,300, according to Legislative Administrative Services. More lawmakers probably are attending the conference, which runs July 22 through 24, but registered on their own and paid their own fees.

The lawmakers who had their fee paid for by the state: Reps. Steve Brunk, Dan Hawkins, Dennis Hedke and Gene Suellentrop, all Republicans from Wichita; Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, the House Tax chairman; Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, the House Education chairman; Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, the House Judiciary chairman; Reps. James Todd and Jerry Lunn, both Republicans from Overland Park; Rep. Will Carpenter, R-El Dorado; Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville; Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee; Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie; and Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, serve as board members for ALEC. Their staffs said that they are attending the conference but registered and paid independently. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, is also attending on his own.

“ALEC is a member-led organization of legislators from across the nation,” Merrick said in an e-mail. “ALEC provides a forum for legislators to discuss the challenges they face in their states and exchange best practices and policy ideas.”

ALEC sent out a message to registered lobbyists in Kansas in May asking them to help sponsor the conference. The message, which was signed by Merrick, said that “A sponsorship is an excellent opportunity to educate our members on your platform, both during the conference and in the months leading up.”

The message said sponsorships could range from $5,000 to $100,000 and contributions could be made by a corporation, individual or political action committee.

Asked about the solicitation for money from lobbyists when the Legislature was still in session, Merrick’s staff cited an exemption in Kansas law that allows lawmakers to solicit money “for the benefit of any national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established for the purpose of serving, informing, educating and strengthening state legislatures in all states of the nation.”

ALEC has sometimes been criticized as a corporate bill mill. National Public Radio referred to it as a “dating service” for politicians and the nation’s biggest companies in a 2013 report. But some major tech companies, such as Google and eBay, have broken with the organization in recent years, contending that it has inhibited work to combat climate change.

The organization has helped craft and promote “stand your ground” laws, which have expanded gun rights, and “right to work” laws, which have lessened the power of unions.

ALEC is not the only conference that lawmakers attend to discuss legislation. Earlier this month, five lawmakers attended the Council of State Governments Midwest conference in Bismarck, North Dakota, registering through the state at a total cost of $1,975. Those lawmakers were Merrick; Powell; Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center; Rep. Sue Boldra, R-Hays; and Rep. Sue Concannon, R-Beloit.

Next month lawmakers from both parties will travel to Seattle to attend the National Conference of State Legislatures, which runs Aug. 3 through 6. The state is paying the registration fees for these seven lawmakers: Merrick; Rep. Les Osterman, R-Wichita; Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe; Rep. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City; Rep. Sharon Schwartz, R-Washington; Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Luray; and Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence.

The total cost of their attendance is $3,909.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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