SALT LAKE CITY — The annual meeting of the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council started Wednesday with a speech by Gov. Gary Herbert lauding the organization's goals and also sparked several protests.
"We have common beliefs," Herbert told some 1,300 lawmakers from around the country, business executives and advocates of conservative causes gathered at the Grand America for the conference, which continues through Friday.
ALEC has been criticized for bringing together lobbyists and lawmakers to craft model legislation, such as the "Stand Your Ground" gun law in Florida at the center of the Treyvon Martin case, the teenager shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
"The private sector is part of the effort of ALEC, they sponsor it," the governor told reporters. "It costs money and I'd just as soon the private sector pay for it as opposed to the taxpayers. I think that's a good thing," he said.
He said any legislation developed by the council is subjected to a "healthy debate" in the state legislatures where it is introduced. "I think there's more politics involved in the criticism than reality," Herbert said.
The "ALEC Welcoming Committee," a group that includes members of Occupy Salt Lake City, was among those staging protests Wednesday. The group's Jesse Fruhwirth called ALEC "a conglomeration of the world's richest multinational corporations. They're a lobbying organization that relies on a pay-to-play, where if you have hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can buy legislation."
Herbert said in his luncheon speech that Utah is already a leader in promoting ALEC's focus on advancing free markets, limited government and federalism. For the fifth year in a row, Utah ranked at the top of the organization's sate economic competitiveness index.
"The principles that ALEC stands for, is one of limited government, free markets and economic opportunity for everybody," the governor said. "I hope you'll take some of the examples of Utah with you back to your states."
Herbert noted Utah has, in recent years, lowered its tax rates and modified or eliminated nearly 400 regulations on business to create what he called a fertile field for companies. Regulations, he said, "are like weeds" and need to be eradicated.
The governor also urged the group to help Utah in its battle to regain control of public lands, equating property rights with freedom and economic development and calling for "an appropriate balance when it comes to the management of public lands."
His Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Peter Cooke, questioned why Herbert would address "an organization with a reputation for connecting wealthy corporations with state legislators for the purpose of writing bills favorable to those corporate special interests."
Cooke also criticized ALEC for coming up with legislation behind closed doors, calling the organization "shrouded in secrecy."
Jonathan Williams, director of the ALEC tax and fiscal policy department, said the organization has long reserved the right to restrict access to some discussions. "We are a membership organization," Williams said.
Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the controversy surrounding ALEC did not diminish the state's top-ranking in the organization's "Rich States, Poor States" ranking.
"ALEC is an organization that believes in limited government, free-market principles, personal responsibility," Lockhart said. "I'm not in any way ashamed to belong to an organization like that....These are the things the people of Utah believe as well."
National Right to Work Committee Vice President Greg Mourad, among the exhibitors at the ALEC meeting, dismissed the organization's critics.
"I never thought there was anything controversial about it. Like-minded people get together to share ideas about the problem," Mourad said. "For the most part, the legislators who come here tend to be pro-liberty and pro-limited government. They don't get their minds changed by ALEC."
Contributing: John Daley