The American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – has been in the headlines lately after coming under attack from liberal groups. Businessweek ran a long exposé about the group in December. The left-wing Nation magazine has done its own series. The New York Times editorialized against it; The Wall Street Journal came to its defense.
Apparently, though, Democratic state lawmakers missed every word. Rhode Island’s Future editor Bob Plain has spent the week reporting on ALEC and he found that not only is state Rep. Jon Brien now on the group’s national board, but one in five members of the General Assembly is affiliated with the group.
That’s not all. In 2008, the Assembly passed a joint resolution urging Congress not to move insurance regulation from the state level to the federal level. The original version [pdf] included a lengthy preamble extolling ALEC and said explicitly that the legislature “joins the American Legislative Exchange Council” in taking such a position; the final version [pdf] removed all references to ALEC.
The 2008 resolution was sponsored by state Sens. William Walaska, a Democrat, along with Leo Blais and Kevin Breene, two Republicans. (Blais was ALEC’s Rhode Island head before Brien.) It passed the Senate unanimously and the House 63-1, with Rep. Joe Trillo the only “nay.” It took effect on July 8 without Gov. Don Carcieri’s signature.
That wasn’t the only time the Democratic-dominated Senate has formally stood with ALEC.
In February 2008, the chamber passed another resolution [pdf] sponsored by Walaska, Blais and Breene, this one saying the Senate “hereby joins the American Legislative Exchange Council” in opposing changes to the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which exempts insurers from federal regulation. The House never took it up.
Brien has had less success than Blais. In 2010, the Woonsocket Democrat introduced a bill [pdf] related to education that explicitly said it was “patterned after model legislation suggested by the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Alliance for School Choice.” The bill was referred to the House Finance Committee but never got a hearing.
Brien said he did not become a member of ALEC until 2011, however, and therefore the ALEC-modeled education bill wasn’t introduced while he was involved with the organization. He said he crafted it in cooperation with the Alliance for School Choice and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
There are other scattered references to ALEC buried in state documents. For example, House Speaker Gordon Fox attended an ALEC reception hosted by GTECH in April 2003, according to a Rhode Island Ethics Commission case. The Senate voted to welcome ALEC officials who visited the chamber in April 2002 and June 2005 [pdf], and ALEC held its annual convention in Newport back in the summer of 1996.
You might think joining a controversial advocacy group would be a major decision for a politician, particularly if the group is a liberal bête noire getting a lot of attention from lefties and the politician in question is a Democrat. But based on Plain’s reporting, quite a few lawmakers didn’t even do a cursory Google search before signing up for ALEC.
“I was asked to sign up,” Rep. Peter Martin, D-Newport, told him. “Now, I’m questioning why I did. I’m learning more about it and thinking I better learn a little more.” Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, said: “Someone signed me up.”
“If someone joins an organization, it’s not always because they are an advocate for that organization,” Rep. Lisa-Baldelli-Hunt, D-Woonsocket, explained to Plain. Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, echoed her: “I didn’t join as a form of support, I joined to get more information.”
What’s notable here isn’t the fact that Democrats joined ALEC; Brien, for example, knows the group’s background and defended its work forthrightly this week. What’s notable is how uninformed these lawmakers apparently are about their allegiances. Would they vote for a bill based solely on another member’s say-so?
This post has been updated with Rep. Brien’s comments about his 2010 bill.