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A pair of Utah senators say it is time for the American Legislative Exchange Council to pull back the curtain to dispel criticism that the organization represents a nefarious plot to give corporations control of state legislatures.
"When there's a vacuum you invite the vacuum to be filled by misinformation or misguided perceptions or boogeymen," said Sen. Curt Bramble, a member of the ALEC Board of Directors, who offered to open meetings to reporters during the group's conference in Salt Lake City this week.
"People substitute their own reality in the absence of facts," said the Provo Republican.
Critics of ALEC have teed off on the level of secrecy surrounding the events. Task force and subcommittee meetings, where corporate sponsors, conservative think tanks and legislators craft model legislation have always been closed to the public.
Handouts and model legislation adopted during those meetings also have been tightly held.
"I don't think we have anything to hide. I think it's more perception than reality," said Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, the Utah co-chairman for ALEC, who has made the argument for transparency, along with Bramble.
Workshops sponsored by ALEC's corporate partners were open to reporters this week, although at least one television reporter was turned away from a panel discussion on health care featuring Gov. Gary Herbert. A Tribune photographer initially was escorted out of a separate lunch gathering also featuring Herbert, but later was allowed entry.
The liberal blog Media Matters was denied credentials altogether.
Bramble allowed a Tribune reporter into the group's task force meetings, an offer he said he has made to other journalists in the past.
During the course of a nearly three-hour meeting, the Federalism and International Relations Task Force made up of state lawmakers and private-sector partners from the defense industry and conservative think tanks discussed how the Obama administration was undermining the free market and how to go about convening a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.
They adopted model bills demanding the United Nations not be allowed to tax the United States or control the Internet, opposing looming defense spending cuts, and promoting the use of gold and silver in commerce a measure first passed in Utah two years ago.
Maryann Martindale, executive director for the Alliance For A Better Utah, said her group has been saying all along that ALEC should let the public in and was encouraged that Bramble invited reporters.
"I'm concerned it won't go any further than him. But it's a step in the right direction," she said. "It's always great when [legislators] listen to the criticism and listen to the concerns and find a way to address those concerns."
Bramble said that part of the problem with opening up meetings is that some ALEC opponents have threatened to disrupt the conference if they have a chance.
"I think that for many in the opposition the facts while interesting are irrelevant if their agenda is simply to criticize, condemn and oppose," he said. "The reason I say that, is they've got to have a villain or a cause to rally around."
But some ALEC members don't see why there is a fuss over the closed task force meetings.
Noble Ellington, a former member of the Louisiana Legislature and national chairman for ALEC, said it is a private organization, but anyone can sign up for the group. (Lawmakers, however, get a discounted rate.)
"If somebody wanted to come and say I'm an attendee and wanted to pay, I think you could register and come."
Ellington said he believes the protesters at the conference are being paid by progressive groups, including some that receive federal money, and the protesters advocate socialist and in some instances, views "close to communism."
"Everybody in America is entitled to their opinion, that's what's great about this country," he said. "And if they wanted to register to come to this conference and come to these meetings, they could do it, as long as they don't cause a problem."
That's what Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan did. A Democrat, Pocan said this week that he signed up for ALEC so he and his colleagues would know what bills would be coming out of what he calls "a corporate dating service" that has thrived on secrecy.
"Much like a dark room, when you turn the light on you see the cockroaches scatter. That's what's happening right now," he said.
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