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Utah's Republican lawmakers will roll out the red carpet later this month for more than 1,500 members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, but, in reality, conservative legislators have welcomed the pro-business group for years.

Dozens of state lawmakers have attended ALEC conferences and looked to the organization for inspiration and guidance on legislation.

Critics in Utah and nationwide, however, have taken aim at the symbiotic relationship between lawmakers and ALEC's corporate members, who they say are pulling legislative strings from coast to coast, using the secretive group to roll back regulations, push privatization and undermine worker rights and citizen protections.

"It represents a pay-to-play system where corporations work with select legislators to draft model legislation that puts corporate profit ahead of the public interest and often ahead of public safety," said Doug Clopp, deputy program director with the watchdog group Common Cause.

ALEC's defenders see nothing nefarious in what they do and accuse the critics of a coordinated assault on free markets and the news media of being willing participants.

"This whole idea being perpetuated that somehow they're puppet masters, and some shadowy group of corporate czars are directing the affairs of state is simply misguided," said state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, ALEC's Legislator of the Year in 2008 and a member of its governing board.

At least two dozen Utah legislators belong to ALEC and several hold leadership positions with the group, which traces its roots back to 1973. Each year, the group boasts, 1,000 pieces of legislation are introduced around the country based on model bills adopted at ALEC meetings.

Other groups — the National Conference of State Legislatures and Council of State Governments, for example — also draft model legislation, noted Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, ALEC's Utah chairman.

"ALEC, in short, serves as a legislative organization, just like NCSL or CSG," Niederhauser said, "as a place where legislators can get together and talk about what's been successful in other states."

But there are distinct differences, Clopp says.

First is ALEC's partisan slant. Its members are almost entirely Republicans and the legislation reflects that. Second, ALEC has a structure in which corporate members can pay to sit on task forces and boards alongside lawmakers and vote on legislation.

The third, says Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive-leaning good-government group, is perhaps the most troubling: ALEC's lack of transparency.

"We don't know who they're meeting with. We don't really know who are members," she said. "There's a veil of secrecy and security around these conferences."

Corporate members and think tanks pay nearly all of ALEC's operating expenses. In Utah, EnergySolutions held a spot on the environment and energy task force in the past, and 1-800 Contacts is an ALEC member.

"We were a member of it in the past, and it's a great organization," said EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker, "but there just wasn't a need for us to be a part of it."

The arrangement gives corporate lobbyists a say in shaping policies that affect them.

At the group's meeting in Charlotte, N.C., in May, for example, Niederhauser offered a resolution adopted by ALEC and backed by tobacco companies urging states to enact tax laws pushing cigarette smokers to use smokeless tobacco because it is less harmful.

"Cigarette companies were coming out and supporting the resolution and saying cigarettes are harmful to your health. I thought that was a huge step for them," Niederhauser said. "They see they've lost the battle on cigarette smoking and … they're saying, 'Yeah, if we have these other products, we need to look at them and see what the risks really are.' "

Some corporate backers recently dropped ALEC amid a barrage of scrutiny that was ratcheted up when ALEC's stand-your-ground bill — supported by the National Rifle Association — became an issue in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

Twenty-five corporate sponsors have abandoned ALEC, including big-timers like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Dell. Last week, five more, including Hewlett-Packard Co., MillerCoors LLC and Best Buy, parted ways with ALEC.

ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss says the group has never hidden its business-oriented agenda.

"We do value the input and opinions of job creators and representatives of the business and nonprofit community, as these are the representatives of free enterprise," she said. "But what's going on with the attacks … is really an extortionist campaign."

She says Common Cause and others are liberal groups "masquerading as a good-government watchdog," but they are not forthcoming about their agendas and backing, either.

ALEC's pro-business philosophy is at home in Utah's Republican-dominated Capitol. Gov. Gary Herbert will offer opening remarks at the conference this month. And ALEC, in turn, praises Utah's environment.

During the past several years, Utah has consistently ranked at or near the top of the organization's "Rich States, Poor States" score card because of its lenient labor laws, limited regulatory hurdles and low tax rates.

Not surprisingly, Utah lawmakers often seize on ALEC bills.

Bramble says that, no matter who proposes model legislation, the Legislature is not a rubber stamp.

"There's a vetting process," he said. "If a concept has merit, where the concept originates is not the issue, but what is the public policy consideration in the proposal and is it good policy?"

There is no comprehensive list of ALEC bills that have cleared the Utah Legislature. But a comparison of ALEC model legislation, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, with Utah bills shows such instances are not uncommon.

A so-called "Ag-gag law," pushed through by Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, making it illegal to take undercover video or photos of farming operations, is patterned after an ALEC bill.

Two years ago, then-Rep. Carl Wimmer's bill resisting federal health care reform incorporated ALEC recommendations that the group boasted were adopted in Utah and other states.

Niederhauser passed legislation in 2008, patterned after an ALEC bill, creating a transparency website, where citizens can search state expenditures.

In 2009, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, pushed through voter-identification legislation that he said at the time was modeled after an Indiana law, which became an ALEC bill.

Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, ran legislation that same year, capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice suits at levels recommended in ALEC's model bill.

And resolutions affirming Utah's sovereignty in 2010 and calling for a constitutional convention 2011 to repeal federal laws were almost exact copies of ALEC bills.

In some instances, bills that originated in Utah have been adopted by ALEC.

This year, for example, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, successfully sponsored legislation demanding Congress return federal lands to Utah or face litigation if it does not. He pitched the proposal to ALEC, which adopted it as model legislation, although no other state has enacted the bill.

Last month, ALEC members on Utah's Revenue and Taxation Committee spent much of their meeting on a resolution on a streamlined sales tax — dealing with how online purchases are taxed — for the purpose of presenting it at the ALEC conference this month.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, went to the group's most recent meeting as well and was "underwhelmed" by his experience on the economic development task force and won't be attending the gathering in Salt Lake City.

"I was not impressed with their discussions and the significance of the legislation that was being introduced by the various presenters," Reid said. "It was inane kinds of legislation that certainly didn't charge me up in any way."

Besides, Clopp says, legislators are elected to deal with issues and problems of the people they represent and should be capable of "finding solutions for working families" without meddling from groups such as ALEC. "They don't need to import a corporate agenda."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke —

ALEC convention coming to SLC

P The American Legislative Exchange Council's 39th annual convention will be July 25-28 at The Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. Gov. Gary Herbert will give the opening remarks.

Alliance For A Better Utah and other groups will hold an ALEC Exposed workshop 6-8 p.m. July 25. The event is open to the public, but attendees are asked to RSVP at The event will be held at 629 S. State St.