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Some Missouri Lawmakers Attend Conservative Group's Spring Summit

File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Capitol Building in Jefferson City, Mo. Legislative action here on Thursday by Sen. Jason Crowell would refer the "right-to-work" issue to voters next year.

The Missouri House and Senate aren’t in session today, but some of their members are expected to have traveled to Kansas City to take part in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s spring task-force summit.

The council, often referred to as ALEC, is a conservative group that focuses on state issues, often helping develop proposed legislation that some of its lawmaker-members then seek to advance in state capitols around the country.

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, serves on ALEC’s board.

National ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said that legislators from numerous states, including Missouri, are expected to make up about half of the 600 attendees at today’s summit.

A number of Missouri legislators sit on the various task forces that are meeting at the summit, he said, to discuss such policy issues as economic development, health care and taxes.

Meierling did not provide a list of attendees for the gathering, which is not open to the public.  Jones did not respond to queries about whether he was attending.

Critics, including some progressive organizations and watchdog groups, say that at least 47 current members of the Missouri General Assembly are members of ALEC.

A report released this week by a coalition of such critics -- including Progress Missouri, Common Cause, and the Center for Media and Democracy -- point to at least 13 bills introduced by Republican legislators this session that mirror wording recommended by ALEC.

The measures in question seek to curb union rights, support some sort of private-school vouchers, oppose Medicaid expansion and promote tax cuts.

Opponents critical of ALEC's influence

The report also asserts that ALEC’s funding from various major corporations is proof that it is primarily advancing corporate interests at the expense of average Missourians.

“ALEC gives state lawmakers a way to appear highly active in the legislative process by secretly outsourcing their role in drafting legislation to the corporate special interests that curry influence with lawmakers behind closed doors at ALEC meetings,’’ the report said.

Among other things, it cited the donations politicians receive from corporations that also contribute to ALEC, as well as the “scholarships’’ that ALEC gives to legislators to help pay their costs for attending ALEC gatherings.

Meierling at ALEC said he is used to seeing such disparaging reports, which he contends generally mischaracterize what ALEC is about.

“They’re very much looking for a straw man on which to hang negative activities or negative aspirations,’’ Meierling said, referring to the critics.

“We certainly do believe in the principles of  limited government’’ and in free-market approaches to various issues, Meierling said.

He added that it also seemed unfair to imply that the private sector should have no voice in what goes on in government: “Shouldn’t the private sector be involved in conversations about things that are relevant to them?”

“But the end goal is to bring people together, from the public and private sector, to have discussions about what has and hasn’t worked,” Meierling continued. “To the extent that our members are coming together to exchange ideas and ensure best practices, we’re certainly pleased.”

He denied that ALEC targets specific state legislatures or seeks to unduly influence legislators, or that it promotes “model policies” for certain issues. Legislators who have used wording from ALEC gatherings were simply advancing issues they believe in, Meierling said.

As for the scholarships, Meierling said the money — roughly $300 for the Kansas City gathering  — partially cover attendees’ travel costs.  By design, he said recipients do not know which firms or  individuals help underwrite such expenses.

Meierling added that progressives also appear to have created their version of an ALEC counterpart, known as the  Progressive States Network.  “They do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way,” he said, but just advance an opposing point of view.

Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, said the Progressive States Network doesn't offer scholarships' to legislators.  He also contended that ALEC's influence was more pervasive and potentially damaging to the legislative process. 

Fischer said that the so-called scholarships, expensive meals and other perks that ALEC provides to lawmakers "allow corporations to access and influence state legislatures ... The 'scholarship' theme contributes to this environment."

Corporations already wield influence through their campaign donations and lobbyists, Fischer continued. "What ALEC does is take this influence to another level. They create this environment for excessive and improper influence, and it all happens in secret."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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