Ted Simons: ALEC is an acronym that stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a public-private membership association of corporate interests and state lawmakers. Critics say ALEC has too much influence at state capitols across the country, but others see ALEC as little more than a way for lawmakers and business interests to meet and share ideas. National Common Cause president and CEO Bob Edgar presented a new report on ALEC-backed legislation introduced in Arizona this year and he joins me now to talk about what he sees as the influence of ALEC on the Arizona state legislature. It's good to have you here, thanks for joining us.
Bob Edgar: It's nice to be here.
Ted Simons: Give me a better definition of ALEC.
Bob Edgar: ALEC is an association of about , conservative state representatives from across the country who meet several times a year in some of the most fancy resorts and fancy spots and they meet went corporations, they sit side by side, they have eight task forces. Nothing happens unless the corporate leaders agree to let it happen. They put model legislation together, and then they come back to states like Arizona which is the poster child for where ALEC works and here in this state, they have these model bills that they put in place. Now, that's not a bad thing to do if you're a conservative, that's okay. But for 40 years, they've been organized and filing with the IRS as a charity. Every contribution given is tax deductible and corporations who give hundreds of thousands of dollars for these fancy events to lobby, I spent years as a member of Congress, I know what lobbying looks like. Your former guest is a Congresswoman, she's finding out what lobbying is like. These folks are professional lobbyists who want to corporatize democracy, want to move democracy more into the private sector and they ought to be honest about the fact that they do lobbying and they tell the world and here's the point that impacts on average citizens. We pay for it. As taxpayers, every time somebody defrauds the tax code as ALEC has done and bill moyers did a video we showed almost people last night here in Arizona, we're showing it in every state capitol so that average citizens can make the connection between their legislators being wined and dined and accepting gifts that they can't accept in their own state and also what ALEC is doing to influence public policy.
Ted Simons: You use the word fraud. If it's that clear, and if it is fraud, where's the IRS, where's the federal government on this?
Bob Edgar: We found inside the IRS there's a whistleblower agency that is mandated to investigate tax fraud. Bob Edgar, that is myself and my wife, we filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS. We gave the IRS only 4,800 documents. We handed it over last May and they've been researching those documents and showing the difference between what they claim on their tax form and what they actually do, and inside this agency, if we are right and our legal council says that this is the strongest tax fraud case that they've seen, if we're right and the IRS comes out and concludes that we're right, then ALEC and the corporations that are paying into ALEC will be subject to penalties and fines into the millions of dollars. Last year, in the Martin shooting, ALEC came to the fore because the shooter claimed the stand your ground law and that law was invented by the rifle association, installed in Florida, and then spread through ALEC across the country and that's when ALEC came out of the shadows and became very much a popular name and word.
Ted Simons: It's interesting you mentioned coming out of the shadows because a year or so ago, ALEC had a national conference here in Arizona and one of our state lawmakers, the ALEC Arizona state chairman and we talked to her about ALEC and among the things we asked was whether or not ALEC had more influence than it should have or at least more than the average Joe or Jane at the state legislature. We want you to listen to what she had to say.
SOT: Ted Simons:So when critics say ALEC means too much corporate benefit, not enough public benefit, you say...
Debbie Lesko: I say ALEC is a great group. They bring legislators together to talk about pension reform, fiscal responsibility, improving education, it's a great forum. I think it's the strength of ALEC that businesses and legislators can meet together, share ideas, create jobs.
Ted Simons: Is that a disproportionate strength, considering of the lawmakers are members of ALEC.
Debbie Lesko: I'm very good at recruiting.
Ted Simons: Apparently, you are but is the appropriation healthy for Arizona?
Debbie Lesko: Yes it's healthy because all the issues we talk about are issues that our Arizona citizens, a vast majority support. They want to make sure that we're fiscally responsible. We talk a lot about that issue at ALEC. They want their state rights. We talk a lot about that issue at ALEC. I mean, they're just good, solid issues that our citizens support.
Ted Simons: Good, solid issues, a give and take of ideas, a chance to meet with business interests. What can be wrong with that?
Bob Edgar: Arizona is the poster child for how they've been consumed by the ALEC influence. For example, for-profit prisons have been established, and ALEC has spread those across the country and filling them with persons where they get money per diem. Education, they've been trying to weaken public education and we did a lot of research in these whistleblower complaints that we sent in, we found inside of ALEC, they're manipulating these legislators to think that they're doing the public good and your voters here in Arizona need to ask the legislators that are part of ALEC do you represent us as individuals, as democracy is supposed to represent, or do you represent Exxon and bp? Do you represent the energy interests and the healthcare interests? 40 corporations since the Trayvon Martin shooting have fled ALEC because they don't want to be identified with ALEC. Many corporations that don't care about their brand identity have stayed and they want to use ALEC almost like a stealth bomber to be able to lobby inside the state legislatures without labeling it lobbying.
Ted Simons: Is there, though, a liberal version of this? I ask this because I've heard of the progress states network, psn, union backed and there's some thought and some critics of psn say they're more secretive than ALEC out there and it's harder to find out who's funding and running that group which drafts model legislation.
Bob Edgar: Common cause has been around for years and we try to be a watchdog of good government looking at both liberals and conservatives. The difference is if you give 25,000$, to ALEC, you can take it off on your income tax. If you give 25,000$, to the group that you mentioned, that would be illegal because they filed properly with the IRS and you don't get a tax break. So the taxpayers are supporting and funding and subsidizing ALEC. The taxpayers aren't subsidizing these other groups. Also, in ALEC, corporations have equal influence with the state legislators. In these other groups, they'll invite corporations in to give their talking points and their point of view but they don't let them control the outcome.
Ted Simons: So is it your main concern not so much the influence that they have at the legislature because some folks are voting in conservative lawmakers because they're conservative, it's not so much that you're saying it's the tax exempt status, it's the unwillingness to say you really are a lobbying group.
Bob Edgar: If I'm general electric, I want to get access to all of these state legislators, ALEC is a great opportunity to do it and then I get a bonus by being able to take off every dollar I give to ALEC as a tax deduction. That's a pretty good thing. It's actually lobbying on the cheap. And I think what your constituents here in Arizona want, they want their representatives to come to the state capitol and do the best job they can, listen not only to corporations, but listen to all sides of a particular issues and they want lobbyists to be known, registered, and not hiding in the shadows.
Ted Simons: Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.
Bob Edgar: Appreciate it.