COLUMBIA — Sen. Mike Rose stood up on the Senate floor earlier this month to clear confusion over a bill and asked for a delay so he could check with the measure’s creator.
But the proposal’s author wasn’t a fellow lawmaker or anybody in South Carolina.
“This is an American Legislative Exchange Council bill,” the Summerville Republican told his colleagues. “What I would like to do over the break is to do the research now with ALEC and address the senator from Orangeburg’s concerns.”
The moment provided a rare public outing of a little-known player in the state Legislature — a Washington-based, mostly corporate-funded nonprofit that pairs lawmakers across the country with business interests.
Since 1973, they have worked together in private — often at resort-hosted retreats — to craft proposed laws addressing everything from health care to education to gun laws and even voting rights.
Some corporations behind ALEC, among the largest companies in the country, stand to profit from passage of the group’s ready-made, model bills.
The group identifies itself as nonpartisan and working to advance free-market enterprise and limited government at the state level.
ALEC has Democratic members, including a few in South Carolina, but its bills most often line up with the GOP agenda.
The extent of ALEC’s influence in the Palmetto State is difficult to nail down, as there is no complete or definitive public tracking of just how many of its model bills have been introduced or passed here in some form over the years.
But the group’s bills are materializing at the Statehouse.
It’s rare for state legislators to publicly admit that a bill they sponsor is actually the work of ALEC, but the similarities between the group’s model bills and some introduced here are undeniable. Whole sections of some, with a few words changed, match ALEC models.
Some of ALEC’s member lawmakers say the bipartisan group provides useful assistance in weighing the impact of legislation on corporations and job creators, assistance not unlike the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But more often, critics say the group has taken on an increasingly conservative tilt. Some say ALEC provides corporations a way to influence lawmakers without it being reported to state ethics watchdogs.
“We feel that for a group like ALEC, a lot of how they make these bills is done in secret through corporate money and without public input,” said Liz Bartolomeo, a spokeswoman with the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based, nonpartisan group that advocates for government openness.
Voter registration bill
Charleston GOP Sen. Chip Campsen is an ALEC member and among the co-sponsors of the state’s controversial voter ID bill that passed last year.
The bill was signed into law by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley but subsequently blocked by the U.S. Justice Department, which said it discriminated against minorities.
The measure requires voters to bring a photo ID to the polls as a way to protect against fraud, bill supporters have said.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the federal government, arguing the state’s voter ID law does not discriminate.
South Carolina was among a group of states to pass voter ID measures last year.
Language in many of the bills, including South Carolina’s, bears some similarities to ALEC’s model voter ID bill.
Earlier this month, after a fund-raiser in downtown Columbia for a national group that supports voter ID laws, Campsen said he developed his bill on his own without input from any organizations, including ALEC.
He said there could be a couple of reasons for similarities between the group’s model bill and his own. “Maybe people copied me,” he said.
But Campsen said it’s more likely ALEC copied laws from two other states whose voter ID measures have been upheld by the courts.
“I’ve introduced a lot of legislation in response to Supreme Court decisions, and that’s been my practice,” he said.
While the state waits for a resolution to Wilson’s lawsuit challenging the federal block, Campsen has introduced another measure that would impact voting rights.
Specifically, the bill would limit the types of IDs residents can use to register to vote.
Currently, state residents who want to register to vote must provide a valid photo ID or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document that shows their name and address.
Campsen’s bill, titled the “Voter Citizenship Verification Act,” would limit acceptable forms of identification to a military ID, South Carolina or other state-issued ID, a birth certificate, naturalization documents or a passport.
The new measure, which has cleared a Senate panel, bears striking similarities to ALEC’s “Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act,” which lays out the same proposed requirements to register to vote.
The wording of the two bills also matches up closely in several sections.
Campsen did not respond to calls seeking comment on his new bill.
Another ALEC proposal that has passed in South Carolina was part of last year’s Fairness in Civil Justice Act.
That measure’s two-part trial, where a jury first determines compensatory damages, then punitive damages, is very similar to ALEC’s “Punitive Damages Standards Act.”
The interstate health care compact bill, which Rose identified on the floor of the Senate as ALEC-created, passed the Senate earlier this month.
How it works
Lawmakers pay $100 for a two-year membership in ALEC, but that makes up less than 2 percent of the group’s annual income. Most comes from corporate donations, conferences, advertising and publications.
In return, lawmakers may attend a few meetings a year, such as its spring task force meeting set for May 11 in Charlotte. There, they break into committees with corporate members and work on model bills.
The elected officials’ expenses incurred attending meetings can be reimbursed by the group, or lawmakers sometimes pay their own way out of their campaign accounts.
“Why shouldn’t the private sector be able to sit at a table and discuss legislation that affects the country and them and people?” Rose asked. “The legislators that I know who are conscientiously trying to figure out what’s the best thing are using these organizations to obtain information. They’re certainly not a rubber stamp.”
Almost 2,000 lawmakers from all 50 states are members — about 25 percent — and ALEC bills itself as the nation’s largest nonpartisan individual membership association of state lawmakers. Its alumni include Haley and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston.
Rose likened ALEC to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a publicly-backed bipartisan group that also works on model bills.
State Rep. Liston Barfield, R-Conway, serves as a co-chair of ALEC in South Carolina and also as the secretary of its national board of directors.
Barfield said he first got involved with ALEC when he was a Democrat serving in the House in the 1980s.
“There’s no other organization that lets us hear what the business community is thinking,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we support them on every issue, but at least that gives us insight into what they’re thinking about and what is affecting their business.”
Nationally, ALEC claims more than a thousand of its model bills are introduced each year, and about 17 percent of them become law.
However, the group offers no full breakdown by state. Barfield said some of ALEC’s bills have become law in South Carolina, but, “I don’t have a list of them. I never sat down and tried to figure them out.”
In recent weeks, ALEC has faced a crush of controversy in the wake of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.
While the state waited more than six weeks to bring charges against neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, who shot Martin, the national spotlight turned to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. That law allows people to use deadly force if they feel threatened in a public place.
When applied, as it was initially in the Martin case, those using deadly force are immune from prosecution. Zimmerman was charged later through a special prosecutor.
While Florida’s 2005 law did not stem from ALEC’s work, the group did create a model bill along the same lines that expands the so-called “Castle Doctrine” to areas outside a person’s home.
ALEC’s push for stand-your-ground laws has resulted in some groups calling for corporations to end their support for the group, with some success.
And last week ALEC announced it would focus solely on economic issues going forward.
But the group had been under growing scrutiny even before Martin’s death.
The Center for Media and Democracy, a Washington nonprofit critical of the group’s influence, recently received more than 800 previously secret ALEC model bills and then posted them on its website, providing a rare public glimpse of ALEC’s workings.
Brendan Fischer, a law fellow with the center, said the group hopes this new sunshine will increase voters’ awareness of the previously low-key group.
“They have this huge influence on the laws that govern us, but the public isn’t even allowed in. The press isn’t even allowed in,” he said. “It’s all happening without any public oversight or accountability.”
Fischer said part of the center’s concerns stem from how the corporations working through ALEC aren’t named on most lawmakers’ state ethics reports.
South Carolina lawmakers who have received grants and scholarships to attend ALEC events have declared them as ALEC donations on their campaign disclosure forms, but the names of the corporations themselves don’t appear there. “It’s layering influence on top of influence and it’s all happening outside the bounds of state ethics laws,” Fischer said.
ALEC critics in South Carolina focus less on the ethics angle than what they see as an increasingly partisan edge to its model bills.
Sen. John Land, D-Manning, said he once contributed to ALEC when it hosted a meeting in Hilton Head. But he said the group now has lost its way. He cited its voter ID bill as “highly discriminatory and totally unnecessary.”
Such laws may seem beyond ALEC’s scope of pushing for limited government and free markets. But, Fischer said, “You could see how this would indirectly benefit big business because if you can reduce voter turnout in populations that tend to vote Democratic, you’re going to be more likely to have Republicans in office, and those Republicans are more likely to pass the kind of laws you want passed.”
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he joined ALEC after first winning office in the mid 1990s but quickly left the group without attending a conference after discovering what he described as the group’s one-sided, conservative bent and one-size-fits-all approach.
But Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican who serves with Barfield as state co-chair of ALEC, said the group is best understood as an educational tool.
“I just think it’s healthy to be involved and listen to ideas and listen to national trends and get together with colleagues,” he said, adding that even the National Conference of State Legislatures has its critics.
Rose, the GOP senator from Summerville, said ALEC’s role in formulating bills should not be voters’ prime concern.
“In the end, our Legislature passes or doesn’t passes legislation, so the origin of the legislation really doesn’t matter,” he said.