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ALEC: Utah's Controversial "Houseguest"

July 23, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY - This week, ALEC comes to Utah. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a conservative think tank that convenes private businesspeople with state lawmakers to draft legislation that is then introduced around the country. At its 39th annual meeting, which starts on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, one topic is sure to be the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) investigation of the group, which was launched this spring. The charge is that ALEC should not be considered a nonprofit, because its efforts amount to lobbying.

The complaint was filed by the watchdog group Common Cause, where Bob Edgar is executive director.

"The Red Cross is a charity; homeless shelters are charities. But groups that spend 70 percent of their time lobbying are not charities - they're functioning to get a particular political view through, and ALEC is such an entity."

Its nonprofit status means companies can write off their ALEC memberships as donations. Since the complaint was filed in late April, about 20 prominent corporations have dropped their memberships. ALEC says its work is not lobbying and accuses Common Cause of filing the IRS complaint to advance its own political agenda.

At the Alliance for a Better Utah, communications director Eric Ethington says his group includes people of all political stripes. They're concerned about the overall lack of transparency, when ALEC events are open to members only and companies pay thousands of dollars to join, says Ethington.

"Lawmakers are going to get ideas for bills from many different sources, and that's not such a big problem. But it does become an issue when they actually go in-depth to write the legislation with these lobbyists, outside the scrutiny of the public."

One state lawmaker who will not attend ALEC's meeting is Rep. Brian King (D-Dist. 28), East Salt Lake. Every year, he says, the legislature sees bills written by ALEC task forces, on topics from school vouchers and immigration to voter ID requirements. In his view, not all of them have been good fits for Utah.

"I don't want to be passing legislation that's basically a solution in search of a problem, that may be effective in South Carolina or New Hampshire but really doesn't have any applicability to the state of Utah."

The Alliance for a Better Utah, Common Cause and other Utah groups are hosting a public forum to discuss ALEC's influence on state legislatures on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 629 S. State St. ALEC is meeting at Grand America Hotel, 555 S. Main St. Both are in Salt Lake City.

More information is available at the ALEC website, www.alec.org; the Alliance for a Better Utah website, www.betterutah.org, and the Common Cause website, www.commoncause.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT