The sixth piece examines the ALEC conferences themselves in terms of what gets accomplished. Annual spring and winter conferences are events where legislators discuss potential model legislation with business leaders. The annual summer conference is more of a public relations event that pretends to show ALEC’s openness while not divulging any of the specific model legislation or its origins. This piece also gives reporters Yana Maximova and Mike Klepfer a chance to talk about their experiences at the Spring 2014 conference.
- 6. Kansas City Retrospective 17:30
DM – This summer, KBOO has been examining the way the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC works in Oregon. We’ve been exploring the impact ALEC corporations and Oregon ALEC members are having on the lives of Oregonians. As part of that work, KBOO sent two reporters, Yana Maximova and Mike Klepfer to ALEC’s Spring conference in Kansas City this past April. That task force meeting is one of three meetings ALEC has each year along with a summer and winter meeting. And although you can find a lot of audio and video from the summer conference, there is virtually nothing online from the spring task force meeting. That’s because the spring task force meeting is where ALEC says legislative members bring proposed legislation to be discussed and debated in task forces. We don’t know that for sure however because ALEC’s policy is to not reveal members or from where model legislation comes from. So it’s also entirely possible that model bills originate from ALEC’s corporate members, which is what much of the reporting on ALEC suggests. Members of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council representing corporate interests and ALEC’s Board of Directors representing legislators sit on those task forces together. If task force members vote to approve draft legislation, it goes onto a group of legislators that according to the ALEC website is called the ALEC National Board of Legislators for a second and final vote. At least that’s what Molly Fuchs, ALEC’s press liaison told KBOO back in April. But we couldn’t find anything called the National Board of Legislators either on the ALEC site or through a Google search. Besides, if corporate task force members don’t like a piece of proposed legislation, it never gets to the legislators for that second vote. That vote is supposed to be the ‘check’. Chris Taylor, a Wisconsin democrat who is an ALEC member and spoke extensively to Mike and Yana when they were in Kansas City, she calls those legislators ALEC’s “footsoldiers” since according to her, this National Board of Legislators simply rubber stamps what the task forces give them. The day before Ms. Taylor arrived at the conference, Wisconsin right wing blogger M.D. Kittle was already lambasting her on his blog, “Wisconsin Reporter”. This is significant because ALEC’s stated policy is that the organization doesn’t discuss its membership or the origins of its model bills. So how did Kittle know Taylor would be there?
“Given that ALEC says they don’t disclose who their members are, they don’t disclose who their corporate members are, how much it costs to be a corporate member, I was actually quite surprised yesterday that a right wing blogger in Wisconsin was told by someone in ALEC that I was coming to this meeting. So that is, I think fairly contrary that ALEC would disclose that when they don’t even disclose who their members are and yet to a right-wing blogger, who contacted some unidentified person in ALEC, they told him that they expected me to come to this meeting.”
DM – Anyway, to get back to the point, the summer conference, seems to be a PR event when ALEC releases a lot of podium speeches as a way of trying to show how open it is while the spring conference is treated like a top secret event.
“The last conference I went to was an annual conference. There were many more people there. If you weren’t on a task force, you could still go and listen and still be included. This was a little more exclusionary. This was kind of the inner workings of ALEC. This is the quieter ALEC where the work actually gets done rather than the big annual meetings. I think the thing that started to get even more apparent to me is just so many contradictions within ALEC that their philosophies are just not consistent.”
DM – Mike and Yana didn’t know that when they left but they found out when they got there.
YM – When we first arrived, we went to get our press credentials. We arrived at Marriott. We were told by Marriott staff that ALEC representative would call us back and get in touch with us and let us know. They were not aware of any other media present there. Seemingly surprised, but nevertheless, told us that somebody from ALEC will get back to us.
DM – Mike Klepfer and Yana Maximova discussed their first day at the ALEC conference by telephone. We apologize for the poor connection.
MK – At that point, we left and we got a phone call shortly after from an ALEC public relations representative who said due to the nature of the conference, we wouldn’t be allowed into any meeting or any conference. [They] explained that this was because (unintelligible) policy concerning official business and (unintelligible) from plenary functions such as keynote addresses, which they would allow press to attend but any official business was off limits.
DM – Earlier, Chris Taylor mentioned the inconsistency of ALEC policies. The same seemed to be true for their media policy. KBOO requested media credentials from ALEC in advance of the trip. Ms Fuchs contacted Jenka Sodeberg, KBOO’s news director before Mike and Yana left and told her the same thing that she told Mike and Yana in the Marriott lobby. But because we were in the middle of the Fund for Investigative Journalism Grant period, we decided to go anyway to see what we could get. The thing is, a review of ALEC’s media policy doesn’t distinguish which meetings reporters can or can’t go to. In fact, ALEC website says that ALEC provides social, traditional and online journalists with the data, tools and analysis needed to accurately cover stories involving state legislatures. But our reporters were being barred access from those data, tools and analysis. Meanwhile, I was back in Portland working the phones. I contacted a host of organizations including the Missouri Association of Broadcasters, the Missouri Secretary of State and a whole bunch of other organizations trying to see if we could help Mike and Yana. We already knew ALEC had a history of denying reporters access to its events and in some cases, the hosting hotel actually ejecting the media from its property and forcing them to report from the sidewalk. This happened to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank who was at ALEC’s December 2013 winter meeting. The next morning, Mike and Yana went back to the Marriott in Downtown Kansas City and headed for the lobby. They figured that since they weren’t able to attend any of the meetings, they would try to buttonhole Oregon legislators they recognized who were passing through on the way to the closed ALEC meetings on the 2nd floor.
MK – So when we got to the Marriott again, Yana and I split up and I decided to check out the hotel. There were politicians and private sector ALEC members and police all over the hotel. And (unintelligible) the conference was going on on the hotel second floor where there was a big lobby. So I went and looked around and in front of every meeting room door, there was an ALEC staff member with a list of names so that unauthorized people couldn’t go into meetings. After about (unintelligible) I was approached by a Kansas City police officer who summoned ALEC’s plain clothed security. That person (unintelligible) staff member told me I was not allowed to enter the conference. So the staff member escorted me to the lobby and told me not to go back upstairs or he would have me thrown out of the hotel.
DM – Three hundred people had gathered in a square across the street from the Marriott, and that’s where Yana was, talking to protestors like these …
Protestor Al Frisby – Johnson County MoveOn
“The reason we’re down here is to protest against the extreme legislative ideas, their ideology and how they influence the legislature in Kansas and Missouri. I’m from Kansas and they’ve ruined our state. There’s plenty of evidence for that. There’s some new things coming down the pike here pretty soon that they’re trying to ram down our throat and we don’t like it.”
Protestor Susan Henry – Missouri National Education Association
“I’m a teacher and I am opposed to ALEC because of their use of public funds to promote private enterprises, particularly private school. They are against collective bargaining. They are using public money memberships and buying legislation, actually selling legislation I should say to different states, package deals I’m sure that legislators enjoy who then promote it is their own. That is not helping the common person. Not helping the public sector at all.”
DM – That was Al Frisby of Johnson County MoveOn and Susan Henry of the Missouri National Education Association. Yana also talked with Brendon Fischer, who is the General Counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy. CMD created the ALECExposed website from the trove of documents leaked on ALEC in 2011 and 2013.
ALEC basically exists to facilitate corporate influence. They exist to they exist to allow corporations to access and influence state legislators. So in addition to the creation of model bills, and the fact that legislators and corporations are sitting down together to adopt model legislation, at these ALEC meetings, legislators are getting wined and dined by corporate interests, they’re attending fancy parties sponsored by Altria, Phillip Morris, by BP, by Americans for Prosperity. And in many cases, the legislators are coming to these meetings with their flights and hotel rooms paid for by corporate interests. By the same corporate interests that benefit from the introduction and passage of ALEC model legislation.”
DM – Back in Portland, I was monitoring Mike and Yana’s progress through a collaborative sharing site called “Basecamp”. I contacted [Representative] John Huffman, who told me in an interview earlier this year that he was always willing to make himself available to the media. I didn’t know if he was at the conference but I thought he might be a liaison for lawmakers that were. But as it turns out, Mr. Huffman was at the conference and he graciously talked with Mike and Yana for more than an hour.
“A lot of people I think try to paint ALEC, or at least the emails I get from folks in Oregon try to paint ALEC as an organization that’s run by the Koch Brothers or Wall Street or big business, big industry. And I’ve never seen that. As a member for almost seven years, I’ve never run into that at all. In fact, in my [tax] and fiscal policy task force meetings today so far, 99.9% of the people in the room are other legislators from all around the US. Various states represented and the discussions have been based on what’s working in their states, or what’s not working, what tax policy they might be trying to introduce in the next legislative session, it’s you know it’s things like that. It’s like who has an income tax, who has a sales tax, what’s working for you. Uh, [the] representative from Kansas was just talking about some of the tax cuts and concessions they recently made and what they’re anticipating as far as business growth because I’m a firm believer that unemployment and business growth are directly related to your tax and fiscal policy and so that’s why I’m involved in it. The reality is in Oregon, the only ALEC model bill that I know of that was ever introduced and passed was a bi-partisan effort and it was co-sponsored by Representative Gene Whisnant, Representative Kim Thatcher, Representative Arnie Roblan and Representative Jefferson Smith. So two republicans, two democrats and it passed overwhelmingly. I think it was probably unanimous actually on the House floor and it was the transparency website. And you know so you look at something like a transparency website where you’re trying to make sure that Oregon residents have a better idea and one source to go to about their government and how we’re spending money and who’s on first. So it’s hard to look at that as some big bill coming out of some nasty organization.”
DM – Representative Huffman also convinced ALEC State Chair Gene Whisnant to talk with Mike and Yana. Representative Sal Esquivel was also at the conference, but he didn’t meet with KBOO.
“I don’t understand again as a journalism major, I don’t do anything that I wouldn’t want my mother to see, or my son to see.
MK – Yeah that’s weird though that, I, we applied for press credentials and they’re really consistent about this. They said that since there was no meeting at which by policy journalists could attend, that they wouldn’t issue them. And then …
GW – I don’t agree with that
MK – You don’t agree? Oh OK. So would you say that maybe people’s ideas of what happens here would be assuaged if those policies were …
GW – I don’t know, no, because we’ve invited journalists and they still report it wrong . When I was, I think two annual meetings ago we had someone from the British paper and his, I didn’t like his report.
MK – The Guardian or something. Was that it?
GW – Yeah. Did you see that one? Read that article.
MK – OK, I will.
GW – I’ve got it if you don’t have it
MK – I can look it up.
GW – I didn’t think he did a good job.
MK – What did he get wrong?
GW – Talking about the secrecy and that stuff. There’s nothing secret about what we’re doing. It’s all going to come out in the public if you introduce a bill or whatever.
MK – Right
GW – And all we’re doing here is, you know, what do they say, hundreds of bills and I tell you I’ve introduced one bill. Maybe the [House Bill] 2020 was related but I didn’t introduce that SES, SEIU and AFSCME introduced it and I tried to get it approved as a model legislation they wouldn’t approve it for me.”
MK – Everything seemed very routine. It was business as usual and because of the secretive nature of the conference, there is no way of knowing what an actual talk looks like. They have hilarious titles. One for instance, was called something to the effect of the Jeffersonian Regulation of Electronic Cigarettes followed examples by corporations to ask for deregulation in a collegial setting with pro-free market representatives. The representatives that we talked to from Oregon were pretty forthcoming about their feelings about ALEC and they pointed out that lobbying rules say that any contribution they receive has to be carefully documented and recorded but the way that ALEC work is that these legislators have unaccounted for and open contact with members of high powered corporations.”
DM – The last thing that Mike and Yana did before they left Kansas City was meet with Representative Taylor for dinner. Her view of ALEC was quite different from those of Representatives Huffman and Whisnant. For one, Ms. Taylor disagreed w/Mr. Huffman that there were very few corporate members at the event.
“From what I could see, there was equal representation on the task force between the private members who are either big corporation representatives or right wing think tanks and the public members. So it was extremely balanced in that way. I didn’t see an overwhelming, in fact I actually thought I saw more private members than public members, um, than more legislators. I mean I did not have one colleague from Wisconsin here.
DM – For 45 years, KBOO has been serving its community by bringing news ignored or underreported by the mainstream press. We look forward to future reporting that gives you the tools you need to be fully informed. This and all of the stories in this series were produced by Yana Maximova, Mike Klepfer, Sam Bouman and Sam Smith. You can hear these stories at KBOO.org. Special thanks to KKFI community radio in Kansas City, and Claudine Thomas. The KBOO news director is Jenka Sodeberg. I’m Don Merrill.
Last update on October 23, 2014 reflects most recent changes.