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A national watchdog group says Utah legislators too often act as lapdogs for corporations that lobby with stealth through the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council often introducing in their own names ALEC model bills without disclosing who actually wrote them.
In fact, Utah is ALEC's "crown jewel," said Doug Clopp, deputy program director of Common Cause, a national, nonpartisan good-government group. It and other ALEC critics are in Utah protesting against ALEC as its holds its annual convention here.
Since 2001, Utah lawmakers copied ALEC model bills word-for-word and introduced them at least 17 times, and heavily relied on model ALEC legislation numerous other times, according to a report prepared by Common Cause, the Center for Media and Democracy, People for the American Way, ProgressNow and the Alliance for a Better Utah.
The report compared bills introduced in the Utah Legislature with ALEC model bills and internal documents provided by whistle blowers.
Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, said pushing ALEC model bills is a big deal because corporations can pay to be on ALEC committees that draft and vote on model legislation and they often push privatization of government services to help corporations.
"ALEC is the poster child for non-transparent political infrastructure that puts corporate profits ahead of the public interest," Edgar told The Tribune editorial board.
He said corporations and lawmakers often work in meetings usually out of public view to develop model legislation. He said while lawmakers pay only about $100 to join the group to push conservative causes, corporations pay $7,000 to $25,000 each and often foot much of the bill for annual conventions. He said they then write off expenses as a tax-deduction, taking advantage of ALEC's non-profit status.
"ALEC represents a pay-to-play system at its worst, a system where the most powerful corporations buy their way in," Edgar said.
Utah legislators have repeatedly denied such charges, and say the group is a place where like-minded conservatives can talk together about what works and what does not.
But Clopp said ALEC has "a really oversized impact" in the Utah Legislature. He noted the new report found that 33 of Utah's 104 legislators belong to ALEC.
The report said ALEC bills passed by the Legislature include banning governments from contributing to a union's political fund through payroll deduction; encouraging privatization of government services; and banning local governments and state entities from requiring contractors to pay workers more than the federal minimum wage.
Much of the 44-page report gave side-by-side comparisons of 16 ALEC model bills with legislation introduced in Utah on education, jobs, tax policy, the environment and health care with similar or identical ALEC model bills. Five of the 16 have passed into law.
"The real vetting process for this legislation is at ALEC's closed-door conferences where corporations have an equal say with legislators in crafting model legislation," the report by the ALEC critics said. "This non-transparent process is antithetical to democracy."