Smart ALEC?

Are legislators loyal to voters or political group?

It’s not easy to spot the ALEC members at the Legislature. Only some of them post their membership in their official biographies.

It’s not easy to spot the ALEC members at the Legislature. Only some of them post their membership in their official biographies.

Photo By Dennis Myers

The London Guardian last week disclosed documents showing the financial difficulties faced by the American Legislative Research Council (ALEC), documents that touch on ALEC’s Nevada presence.

ALEC is an organization that for many years passed for an impartial research organization similar to the National Conference of State Legislatures or the Council of State Governments. In Nevada, moderate lawmakers like Ray Rawson and the late William Raggio were once associated with it, and the Nevada Legislature was actually paying $1,000 a year in tax funds to ALEC for a state membership. (Invoices also indicate the legislature has paid $500 for two-year subscriptions to ALEC publications.)

The money for those dues prior to last year’s legislature came out of money set aside by Assembly Bill No. 492 of the 2011 legislature, sponsored by the Assembly’s budget committee “for dues to national organizations.” A similar measure—A.B. 475— was passed by the 2013 session, but an inquiry to the fiscal division of the legislature on whether any of the funds continue to go to ALEC dues was not immediately answered.

In reality, ALEC is a political group funded by conservative billionaires like Charles and David Koch and corporations like Exxon Mobil and Walmart. Its nature has been publicized more in recent years, and its cover was particularly blown by Florida’s Trayvon Martin case. In that case, local police initially took the position that the “stand your ground” law made it legal to shoot anyone viewed with suspicion. Publicity surrounding the Martin case threw a spotlight on ALEC’s activities proselytizing its “model” language for such laws in legislatures around the nation.

Soon a dozen corporations were running for cover—Apple, Coca-Cola, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and Wendy’s broke their ties with ALEC—and state legislators were doing the same.

In Nevada, according to one of the Guardian documents, 14 of the 63 members of the Legislature hold ALEC memberships. The document did not give their names. If those 14 are current legislators, it would mean that 22 percent of the Nevada Legislature has signed on with a special interest group. However, the 14 figure may not include just current members. Various lists floating around include both current and former members, and ALEC adds to the confusion by not disclosing its legislator members. A Wikipedia list of Nevada members, for example, includes former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, who left the Senate a quarter of a century ago and never returned to Nevada to live.

The Guardian documents also disclosed an “ALEC oath” that reads, “I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first.” That prompted Nevada Democratic Party spokesperson Zach Hudson to ask whether Republican Sen. Barbara Cegavske of Clark County, who sits on ALEC’s national board, has taken the oath.

Among currently serving members of the Nevada Legislature, a number of names keep appearing in various places as ALEC members. They include, in the Assembly, Cresent Hardy and Jim Wheeler. In the Senate, they include Barbara Cegavske, Don Gustavson, Joseph Hardy, Ben Kieckhefer, Michael Roberson, and James Settelmeyer. A site called Source Watch also includes Sen. Scott Hammond. All these members are Republicans.

Two others are frequently named, but say they have let their memberships expire. Last year, when the RN&R relied on a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice bio used when Washoe Sen. Greg Brower became U.S. Attorney to describe him as an ALEC member in a voter registration story (“Government-approved voters?” RN&R, Jan. 26, 2012), Brower responded by email, “Interesting story, but I am not a member of ALEC.” When we followed up, Brower said he was a member when he was in the Assembly because Sen. Raggio “ensured that all GOP legislators joined” but has not been a member since.

Clark County Democratic Sen. David Parks was a member of ALEC but said earlier this year that he let his membership expire. He said he joined in part because he was encouraged to do so by Sen. Raggio and in part because he wanted to receive their publications and go on their junkets.

“As an elected official, I feel that I have a responsibility to my constituents to follow what the ’other side’ is saying and doing,” he said in May to Las Vegas CityLife. “Oftentimes, ALEC puts forward the opposition viewpoint which solidifies my perspective. It is also helpful to be able to see a proposed bill come in front of me and be able to say to myself, ’OK, that’s an ALEC bill. Be cautious.’ ”

In May, a group called Progress Now issued a report identifying 16 pieces of legislation in three legislative sessions—2009, 2011 and 2013—that it believes were taken from ALEC model bills. The report provided side-by-side comparisons of Nevada bills with ALEC model measures.

For instance, S.B. 188 of the 2013 session was sponsored by Washoe County Republican Sen. Don Gustavson and three other senators. The bill read in part, “English is hereby designated as the official language of the State of Nevada.” At least three of the four Senate sponsors were ALEC members. All were Republicans.

When contacted, Sen. Gustavson—who introduced three bills whose language tracked with ALEC model language—said, “I’m not sure where the language came from.” He compared ALEC to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which he said also provides model bills to state legislatures. “They all have these services,” he said.

However, NCSL is not a political organization, and ALEC is. Moreover, on some issues, NCSL will provide model language on more than one side of an issue. ALEC has language to support only their side of issues.

Beside the English bill, Gustavson’s measures included two measures dealing with illegal aliens. All failed to pass.

Gustavson also said he never took ALEC’s oath.

Just as interesting as the bills is the reaction Progress Now got when it made a public records request of Sens. Cegavske, Kieckhefer and Brower on their involvement with ALEC. They received an answer not from the senators but from Legislative Counsel Brenda Erdoes, who refused to provide records because, she wrote, “[I]t is unlikely that the private parties who conducted the private correspondence with the senators would have felt comfortable communicating their ideas to the senators frankly and freely if they had known that their correspondence would be disclosed to the public.” This was contained in a 12-page letter providing legal reasoning on why the senators need not comply with the records request.

The Progress Now report also identified corporations that gave money both to ALEC and to Nevada legislators. They include NVEnergy, Wells Fargo, AT&T Nevada, United Health Group, the Nevada Rural Electric Association, Walgreen’s, Verizon Wireless, and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Nevada, incidentally, has a “stand your ground” law similar to Florida’s. It was sponsored by Assemblymember John Oceguera, a Clark County Democrat—not, so far as is known, an ALEC member.