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The head of the conservative, free market=oriented and corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council was in Salt Lake City on Thursday to meet with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and legislators in a little-publicized gathering in the Capitol complex.
But first, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson stopped by the University of Utah to talk to students about innovation in government.
"We believe that we are a 2015 world living in a 1950s government," Nelson said at the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics. "It's our focus and purpose in the next two years to inject innovation into legislation."
As an example, she pointed to the debate underway in the Utah Legislature about raising more revenue for roads.
"Okay, you're debating a gas tax, but half the people in Utah might be driving electric cars in a few years," she said. "Why are we talking about gas tax when we're also talking about new, innovative solutions around transportation and driving?"
Still, she praised Utah for its efforts to stimulate innovation in policy and the economy, noting it is at the top of the list of ALEC's annual index, "Rich States, Poor States."
"Utah has been No. 1 in our books for seven years straight, and that's something we want to recognize, we want to hail."
A spokesman for the governor said Herbert spoke briefly at the gathering with Nelson and lawmakers and then left for another appointment.
ALEC is controversial, with critics saying it is a secretive organization in which business interests pay large membership fees to sit with mostly conservative lawmakers and craft model legislation for introduction in statehouses around the country.
The Alliance For A Better Utah and others issued a report in 2012 identifying 17 bills that were in many cases taken verbatim from the ALEC model legislation on topics and relying on ALEC ideas or principles. These groups contend the organization is bent on eroding public education, undermining organized labor and putting corporate interests ahead of public interests.
Nelson's presentation to students didn't press such an agenda.
She and Hinckely Institute director Kirk Jowers discussed a few pieces of innovative legislation Utah lawmakers are working on this year, including the "Right to Try" bill that would allow terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs; a milestone compromise on antidiscrimination between the LGBT community and LDS Church leaders; and a plan to reform the criminal-justice system with reduced sentences and better treatment for drug offenders.
Nelson encouraged students to get involved in public policy, pointing to the extremely low voter turnout among the millennial generation.
"Our view is that if you don't trust your government, you're going to be disenfranchised, you're going to be disenchanted, you're going to feel frustrated at decisions that are made," she said. "So what we're really focusing on building those blocks at ALEC between the legislators and the American people."
She also dismissed criticisms that too much money is spent on politics in the United States. She cited last year's Federal Election Commission statistics that say in 2014 lobbyists spent $2.87 billion advocating for policies, compared with the $6 billion Americans spent on potato chips.
"Twice as much was spent on potato chips than on determining who the leader of the free world would be. I would argue that there's not enough money in politics if this is the case."
Nelson, former spokeswoman for one-time House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a veteran of government affairs for big corporations, especially encouraged women to become active in politics and government.
"More women today hold elected office than at any other point in U.S. history," she said. "That's exciting to see."