At least 17 Arizona state legislators attended a lavish recruitment dinner on Tuesday for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an out-of-state right-wing corporate bill mill that wields a heavy influence in Arizona and at state capitols around the country. [Hat tip to Progress Now for the info.]
The senators and representatives, including Senate President Andy Biggs, enjoyed dinner and drinks alongside several prominent lobbyists in a private back room at Donovan’s, one of the Valley’s finest steak and chop houses. They came at the behest of Rep. Debbie Lesko, ALEC’s Arizona Chairwoman, whose leaked invitation billed the event as “an Arizona ALEC Membership Reception/Dinner” while including her House office number for RSVPs. It is unclear how many Arizona legislators Lesko invited to Tuesday’s shin-dig, but no Democrats were seen arriving.
In addition to Sen. Biggs and Rep. Lesko, lawmakers spotted at the dinner included: Reps. Eddie Farnsworth, John Kavanagh, Carl Seel, Brenda Barton, Bob Thorpe, David Livingston, J.D. Mesnard, Justin Olson, Michelle Ugenti, T.J. Shope, Adam Kwasman, Jeff Dial; and Senators Nancy Barto, Chester Crandell and Don Shooter. [You'll remember that Farnsworth and Kavanagh were big stars on Thursday-- valiantly defending the anti-gay bill SB1062-- when the Arizona House passed it. You'll also remember that Farnsworth, Olson, Ugenti, Lesko, and Seel were on the committees that forced the death of the Equal Rights Amendment by not hearing it. So, who are they supposed to be working for?]
Arizona has consistently had one of the highest participation rates in ALEC in the nation, with the majority of the Republican caucus counting themselves as members and attending luxurious out-of-town policy retreats each year. Those expense-paid retreats – where bills are written and shaped without public input -- have had profound results for ALEC’s corporate backers. Arizona Legislators have strongly backed several ALEC priorities, including the anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070, efforts to undermine public schools through expansion of private-school vouchers and charter schools, expanding private prisons and numerous attacks on wage protection, workplace rights and
“I don’t know which special interest picked up the tab on Tuesday night, but I know who didn’t – those Arizona legislators,” said Robbie Sherwood, Executive Director of ProgressNow Arizona. “The public has a right to know where their lawmakers get their ideas and how much those special interests paid for the access.”
Sherwood, who sat at the Donovan’s bar and watched the parade of legislators and lobbyists enter, added, “This political power play literally took place in the back room of one of the nicest restaurants in town. It’s not right for our lawmakers to betray working families by showing allegiance to ALEC, skirting ethics laws to take lavish trips, getting wined and dined. Arizonans deserve better than secret backroom deals where their elected representatives are given special treatment by corporate lobbyists who want the laws changed to suit their private interests. “
In late December, a major expose by The Guardian revealed that ALEC is facing a membership and fundraising crisis. The downturn comes in the wake of dozens of corporations dropping their memberships in the wake of Trayvon Martin killing and scrutiny of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which ALEC helped spread around the country. ALEC even flirted with the idea of asking legislators to sign oaths of loyalty to ALEC over their constituents, but ultimately dropped the proposal.
A sample of ALEC model or ALEC-inspired legislation on the move in Arizona:
- House Bill 2291 (empowerment scholarships accounts; expansion) Would expand Arizona’s back-door school voucher program to thousands more students. Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal has received much criticism for recording a robo-call to 15,000 Arizona students urging them to leave public schools and attend private schools “for free.” ALEC has long sought to defund private school in favor of vouchers and charters.
- House Bill 2476 (Labor organizations; withholdings of wages) and Senate Bill 1094 (school employees; paycheck deductions; authorization). These so-called “paycheck deception” bills are longtime ALEC model legislation designed to stifle teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees from voluntarily organizing and having a voice to speak out for workplace rights.
- Senate Bill 1267 (Strike everything: livestock; poultry; animal cruelty; violation) Couched as helping prevent animal cruelty, this bill actually reduced penalties on farmers and ranchers who abuse livestock. It also mandates whistleblowers and investigative journalists turn over film of animal abuse to the state within 5 days or face criminal penalties. This so-called “ag-gag” measure – designed to discourage investigative journalism – has been ALEC model legislation since the late 1990s.
- House Bill 2509 (interstate compact; health care) is nearly identical to Goldwater Institute and ALEC model legislation that stalled last year. It would set up a “healthcare compact” aimed at undermining The Affordable Care Act.
- House Bill 2316 (schools; local control; student privacy) A complex bill aimed at stopping the state from implementing Common Core educational standards, but contains several elements based on ALEC’s “Student Data Accessibility, Transparency, and Accountability Act” model legislation.