Writing on behalf of the 80,000 members of the AFL-CIO, union leaders George Nee and Maureen Martin sent a letter to every member of the legislature asking that ALEC memberships not be funded with taxpayer money.
“If the views and priorities of ALEC align with your personal beliefs, then by all means remain a member,” they wrote in the letter. “We only ask that the Rhode Island taxpayer not be responsible for paying your membership dues to a right-wing, business backed lobbying group, just as no one would ask the taxpayer to be responsible for paying any members dues to liberal organizations such as Ocean State Action, Emily’s List, or MoveOn.org.”
The state paid $2,300 for 23 legislators’ memberships in the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a far right wing group that pairs together paid corporate interests and conservative legislators to draft model legislation used in states across the country. While the expenditure is relatively small, many consider what ALEC does to be lobbying, and thus shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers.
“ALEC is clearly not a nonpartisan organization,” Martin and Nee wrote to legislators. “Ninety-eight percent of ALEC’s funding comes from corporate and special interest group donors such as BP, Verizon, the Koch brother’s, Wal-Mart, the National Right-to-Work Committee, the NRA, the Heritage Foundation, the United States Chamber of Commerce, among many others.”
Memberships to such organizations are approved by the powerful Joint Committee on Legislative Services – made up of House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, House Minority Leader Brian Newbury and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere.
Fox, the chairman of the committee, told me he doesn’t see a problem with taxpayers paying for ALEC memberships, likening it to memberships in the National Conference of State Legislators.
“I just treat ALEC as I treat the NCSL and NCSG [National Conference of State Governments],” Fox said. “Yes they have a more conservative bent from some of the other ones. But there are members up here who are conservative and want to belong to something that’s a little more conservative.”
The NCSL and NCSG are non-partisan organizations that offer research and networking opportunities to state governments. Every state legislator in the country belongs to the NCSL. ALEC, on the other hand, exists to promote corporate interests and its legislative members are almost always conservatives.
Fox said taxpayers have been funding ALEC memberships for as long as his memory serves. While he didn’t rule out revisiting their funding, he wouldn’t commit to doing so either, saying, “I’m really looking at the budget right now but in my spare time i’ll look into that too.”
Recently, ALEC has been in the news for sponsoring, then distancing itself from, the Stand Your Ground law in Florida that almost allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to avoid trial. Separately, Common Cause has filed a complaint with the IRS saying the group is evading taxes by not registering as a lobby organization. Critics claim ALEC is an example of how corporate America has an unfair advantage in the political process. While ALEC is known for its regressive tax policies that favor big business, it has also aligned itself with the NRA and the religious right in the past.
Locally, ALEC has been making headlines because Rep. Jon Brien, a conservative Democrat from Woonsocket, was recently named to the group’s board of director. Subsequently, it was learned that one in five state legislators are members – though some current and former members say they don’t know how they became members. Phil Marcello, of the Providence Journal, then reported that ALEC memberships are paid for with taxpayer dollars. Since then, two Democratic state Senators, John Tassoni and Walter Felag, have renounced their memberships.