Imagine a retreat at a swank Wisconsin resort, where elected officials are wined and dined by corporate lobbyists, have their travel and accommodations paid, have activities for their families and their child-care subsidized, and are given tickets to major league ball games and elite parties by corporate lobbyists with business before the legislature.
These activities would be banned if they took place in the state of Wisconsin, because our state has some of the strongest ethics laws in the nation. Our gift ban prohibits legislators from even taking a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. But if you export the legislators and the lobbyists to out-of-state resorts under the rubric of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), it has been permitted.
It is time for Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board to take another look at this situation.
Thanks to a ground breaking investigation by the Center for Media and Democracy we know far more about how ALEC is funded and how it operates than we have at any time in the past.
ALEC describes itself as the nation's largest independent "member association of state legislators," but over 98 percent of its nearly $7 million budget comes from corporations and sources other than legislative dues. Some Wisconsin politicians have the taxpayers pay ALEC's $50/year dues, but firms can pay $10,000 to join a task force.
Global corporations that want to change Wisconsin's laws are bankrolling trips to ALEC meetings, where legislators and lobbyists vote as co-equals on "model" bills that the politicians then bring back to Wisconsin and introduce as their own brilliant ideas, such as controversial "voter ID" bills and Florida-style "Stand Your Ground" legislation.
Far away from home, behind closed doors, without constituents or the press, Wisconsin legislators debate, amend, and vote on templates to change state laws. An equal vote is given to lobbyists from out-of-state corporations, such as Koch Industries, Pfizer, Altria/Phillip Morris, State Farm, and AT&T, to name a few. ALEC keeps these bills secret, even after our organization shared over 800 of them at ALECexposed.org.
After a few hours of work, legislators get to party. Rep. Robin Vos encouraged the entire Wisconsin ALEC delegation to accept free major league baseball tickets from Time-Warner at the 2011 ALEC Cincinnati meeting, at a time when the media conglomerate was lobbying on a major overhaul of the Wisconsin telecommunications system.
Rep. Vos is an ALEC state co-chair. Along with his ALEC corporate co-chair, who represents Koch Industries, Vos is charged with raising money to pay for the ALEC scholarships. Sen. Scott Fitzgerald told the press the scholarships are "blind," no one knows where the money is coming from, but open records requests to his office reveal a spreadsheet of money coming in from firms and money going out to legislators.
Most state legislators never report these gifts of travel, and most corporations don't report pushing these bills as lobbying. This blinds Wisconsin voters to the huge influence ALEC and its corporations have on changes to ours laws that these powerful interests want made. Some 21 ALEC bills passed the legislature this past session and 19 were signed into law by ALEC alum Scott Walker.
ALEC has repeatedly told the IRS it doesn't lobby. ALEC also attested that it doesn't give scholarships, even as ALEC told Wisconsin's ethics officials the opposite in 2010. Now the IRS is investigating charges by the good government group, Common Cause, and a former high-ranking IRS official that ALEC is breaking laws governing non-profit charitable organizations.
We believe corporate funded ALEC scholarships violate Wisconsin's best-in-the-nation ethics laws, which try to protect lawmaking from corruption and favoritism.
And we are asking Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board to rule that legislators are barred from accepting ALEC scholarships and gifts.
Lisa Graves is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy (PRWatch.org and ALECexposed.org). She formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice. She also served as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, as Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the U.S. Courts, and as an adjunct professor of law.