When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos arrived in Denver last week to speak before the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), hundreds of protesters clogged the sidewalks outside of the State Capitol. Now that the protests have ended, a Denver-based advocacy group is shedding light on the political influence that ALEC has had on Colorado lawmakers.
The report, "ALEC in Colorado," was released by Colorado Common Cause, a progressive advocacy group that calls for transparency in government. The goal, says executive director Elena Nunez, is to expose the relationship between ALEC and Colorado Republican legislators and the strong similarities between "model bills" drafted by ALEC and some bills passed in Colorado.
Generally vilified by liberal activists, ALEC brings elected officials and corporate representatives together to write what ALEC calls model bills that can be voted on in states. Most of the annual conference is closed to the public and the media, aside from a handful of committee meetings and public speeches (this year, DeVos was the keynote).
At the meetings, business representatives from hundreds of corporations work with elected officials to get their conservative visions into state laws — most notably by writing bills that can be voted on in state legislatures across the country.
In the report, Colorado Common Cause shows how eight bills considered by state lawmakers in Colorado are almost identical to eight model bills drafted by ALEC. The bills are mostly conservative reforms and include the reduction of federal land ownership in the state, a "stand your ground" bill that would have allowed business owners to use deadly physical force in the case of an intruder, and a "right to work" bill preventing mandatory union membership in the state.
The report also shows five bills considered in Colorado that resemble ALEC proposals that would have allowed tuition tax credits for private schools, school choice initiatives in low-income school districts, and two environmental-protection rollbacks.
Model bills are an important tool for conservatives because they are efficient, says Colorado Republican Chairman Jeff Hayes. "Why reinvent the wheel?" he asked in a statement. "Certain political topics are important to conservatives across the country: gun rights, for instance, and immigration, and voter ID. When the exchange system is working efficiently, a model bill represents the best thinking available on a particular subject."
But Nunez says that the lack of transparency is the most concerning aspect of what ALEC does.
"The important thing is that [ALEC] is working to influence public policy, and they are doing so in the shadows," she says. "So as members of the public, we don’t know who is at the table drafting policy…. Our goal is to really just connect those dots." ALEC did not respond to repeated interview requests from Westword.
The report also shows that most top Republican lawmakers in the state Senate and House paid ALEC membership dues from campaign accounts in the last three years. But Nunez says that Democrats also participate in the ALEC system — though they may not know it. One of the model bills listed in the report, which prevented the establishment of "free speech zones" on college campuses, passed the state legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper.
Colorado is one of only a handful of states that do not require ALEC staffers to be listed as lobbyists, which gives them unique access to lawmakers.
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"It is not unusual that you would see think tanks across the country who will have model legislation," says Nunez. "But [ALEC] is different in that it brings together corporate representatives and elected officials who get together behind closed doors and come up with these model bills and then try to spread them."ALEC is one of several other conservative advocacy groups that recently chose Colorado for its annual meeting. Last month, Americans for Prosperity, the political wing of conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, met in Colorado Springs to hammer out its vision of a conservative resurgence in the state. And just last weekend, heavy hitters like Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke attended the Western Conservative Summit in Denver.
Hayes says that Colorado is a natural pick for national conservative groups, who come to the state looking for stellar views and fresh air. He also adds that "Colorado is of interest to both parties because we’re a swing state,
but there are other swing states."
Nunez agrees, but believes that political considerations come first and foremost for groups like ALEC. "I think Colorado as a purple state gets a lot of interest," she says. "It is not surprising to me that you would see a strong interest in how to build a deeper conservative presence here in Colorado. And with an open governor’s seat coming up along with some national races, we’ll see a lot of interest on all sides of the political spectrum."