We’re watching what the courts decide on a lawsuit filed by a coalition of activist groups against the Arizona Legislature, alleging the governing body is violating the state’s Open Meeting Law when lawmakers attend American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meetings.
Opponents of the lawsuit are calling the action a “publicity stunt,” and “meritless,” while those who support the challenge contend that the annual gathering provides lawmakers with bill templates that are later presented to the Legislature.
There’s no question that ALEC is a special interest organization. It is funded by corporate memberships and hosted its 47th annual meeting in July, 2020. The gathering was originally scheduled for Florida but like so many other events, it was changed to an “all-digital” event. Last month it hosted its “states and nation policy summit,” again online.
ALEC provides a forum for state legislators and private sector members to collaborate on model bills — draft legislation that members may customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures. The organization reports about 200 ALEC-authored bills become law across the nation each year.
The lawsuit contends that groups of Arizona legislators — enough to represent a quorum of committee members — attend ALEC meetings and therefore should be governed by the Open Meeting Law.
Of course this newspaper — along with other media — believe in a strict interpretation of the Open Meeting law. Together with the Open Records law and the Public Notice law, these statutes assure government transparency and accountability for our elected officials.
The lawsuit brought by activists was denied by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge last month, which has prompted an appeal. The judge ruled it was “legally irrelevant” if a quorum of lawmakers attend the ALEC conference, indicating the question was beyond the authority of the court to decide.
Regardless of whether the gathering of lawmakers at the conference is a violation of the law, we’re uncomfortable with the influence ALEC obviously exerts over lawmakers. The organization was founded in 1973 in Chicago as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators a project initiated by Mark Rhoads, an Illinois state house staffer, to counter policies issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, to oppose wage and price controls, and to respond to the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.
Since 2010, ALEC has been closely-tied to the Koch family and its conservative and libertarian agenda. By 2013, membership statistics for the organization showed that the 1,810 members represented 24 percent of all state legislative seats across the U.S., and that ALEC members represented 100 percent of the legislative seats in Iowa and South Dakota.
Special-interest groups are not all bad. They are a necessity for lawmakers to understand the nuances of some issues and do represent a specific constituency.
The issue here is the model legislation that corrupts state laws to the benefit of specific organizations and the willingness of our elected officials to wholeheartedly participate in that corruption.
Even if this lawsuit is “meritless,” we believe it’s important the influence of ALEC and other special interest groups be moderated and subject to guidelines that limit the influence over state legislators.