My view: Why are people critical of ALEC?

By Carl Wimmer

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Recently, some groups have criticized the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, for providing a forum where elected officials can discuss various proposals with representatives from the private sector. In these critics' view, these "secretive" meetings are inappropriate since ALEC's private sector members bear the lion's share of the cost for this forum.

Frankly, it's hard to believe that anyone takes these questions seriously. Under the First Amendment, Americans have the right to "peaceably assemble" "to petition the government." ALEC and its members are merely exercising these rights.

But, let's assume the critics' concerns are more substantive. Perhaps their criticisms are more about making official decisions behind closed doors. If that's what happens at ALEC meetings, every Utah voter should storm ALEC's events. Not only would that violate Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act, but also any notion of openness or transparency.

A moment's thought exposes this concern as absurd. The Legislature is in session 45 days a year. They can't take any action after the clock strikes midnight on the 45th day. Anyone who has seen the frenetic pace of the final night is all too familiar with just how firm the midnight deadline is.

In extraordinary circumstances, the governor calls the Legislature into "special session." However, the Legislature can only consider the specific issues that the governor puts "on the call." In other words, Utah's public officials aren't casting any official votes at ALEC meetings.

ALEC and its members discuss and evaluate public policy proposals from Utah and around the country. While Utah is a well-managed state, we certainly can't claim to be the fount of all wisdom. Utah should avail itself of lessons learned from other states, just as other states should avail themselves of Utah's lessons.

Perhaps the concerns about ALEC revolve around who pays for these meetings. If private companies fund ALEC, are these companies exercising undue influence? When money is introduced into the equation, it's tempting to see the specter of undue influence. If ALEC hold their meetings in the swanky Grand America Hotel, certainly ALEC's wining and dining of Utah elected officials will dupe them into benefiting ALEC's members at the expense of Utah, right?

That specter would be more substantial if ALEC were the only one able to wine and dine Utah's elected officials. In reality, anyone can organize a forum like ALEC. One of ALEC's Utah critics, the liberal "Alliance for a Better Utah," or ABU, is hosting an event on July 25 to do just that. The worldwide "Occupy" movement holds thousands of meetings in cities across the country and across the globe to explain what directions they would like to see policy go.

Are the organizers of these meetings also exercising undue influence? None of those meetings are free. Whether paid for in the time of the organizers or in donations, someone pays for those meetings.

Certainly ABU and Occupy SLC (another Utah critic of ALEC) don't think so; otherwise they wouldn't hold their meetings. One might believe that because ABU/Occupy SLC aren't holding their meetings at the swanky Grand America, they are spending much less than ALEC and its members.

However, ABU was willing to rent part of the Little America for their meetings to criticize ALEC. (Having seen this game before in other cities, ALEC now has a clause in their contract with the hotels they go to prohibiting the hotel from providing space to organizers who want to disrupt the ALEC meetings.) In addition, ABU has been spending tens of thousands of dollars on political billboards from Logan to St. George and radio ads on KSL.

If ABU can afford the same tony venue as ALEC, if they can afford dozens of billboards and KSL radio ads and if ALEC has seen the same tactics in other cities, then the money available for ABU meetings and ALEC meetings isn't so different.

In other words, ABU/Occupy SLC meetings are no different in kind from ALEC's meetings. Given the paucity of public officials attending the ABU/Occupy SLC events, and the plethora of officials coming to the ALEC meeting, ALEC provides a meeting that more public officials want to attend. ABU/Occupy SLC could put on a similarly attractive event. Why don't they?

Carl Wimmer is a former Utah state lawmaker.

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