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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kansas Republican Legislators report on what they learned at ALEC

September 7, 2011

Approximately two dozen Kansas legislators will start the 2012 legislative session armed with information on defeating federal health reform, expanding charter schools and lowering business taxes that they received at the American Legislative Exchange Council meeting.

In written reports filed with the state, the legislators — all Republicans ­­— said Kansas will benefit by their attendance at ALEC’s annual meeting, which was held Aug. 3-6 in New Orleans.

The written comments of Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, were typical of many of the legislators’ reports.
“The strongest benefit to Kansas of attending national organizations like ALEC is that I learn what is being done in other states and what worked and didn’t work in other states with the issues that are affecting all of us,” Knox wrote.

ALEC describes its mission as advancing free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty. The group includes legislators and representatives of corporate interests that produce “model legislation.” If the legislative members of ALEC approve the legislation they will then take those measures back to state capitals across the nation for possible approval. Some of those measures — aimed at thwarting the federal health reform law and the EPA — have been approved in Kansas.

Shortly after the ALEC meeting in New Orleans, Gov. Sam Brownback rejected a $31.5 million federal grant, which he had earlier accepted, to establish a health insurance exchange system. Brownback’s administration has stopped implementation of an exchange in Kansas for now although Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger is continuing to work on the issue.

The exchange is a key part of President Barack Obama’s health reform legislation. It is designed to provide citizens with a one-stop shop to purchase health insurance and determine eligibility for subsidies to get coverage. It was a major topic of discussion at the ALEC meeting.

In the written reports, Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, and several other legislators mentioned discussions on exchanges. “This year I was able to attend in-depth presentations on health care exchange implementation that included a spirited and helpful discussion on the options available to states including the pros and cons of taking no action.”

In Kansas, legislators who attend conferences that are at least partially funded by taxpayer dollars are required to write a report about ways the Legislature and state will benefit by their attendance.
When it comes to ALEC, the state pays for registration fees to the meeting for those who serve on an ALEC task force, which according to reimbursement forms ranged from $375 to $575. Other expenses are picked up by the legislator unless he or she received a scholarship, which is supplied by donations to ALEC. The state pays all the expenses of legislators who serve on the national board.

As of early September, about half of the legislators who had attended the ALEC conference in August had submitted their reports.

The Journal-World requested access to those reports already filed.

Some of the reports were brief — just a couple of sentences — but others were more in-depth, sharing information on policy issues and committee doings at the ALEC meeting.

Knox said that in an energy committee all sides of “green” energy were presented.

“The facts are that it is very limited in the energy it can supply and very dependent upon governmental subsidy. Conventional energy will be needed for the foreseeable future, most notably natural gas, if coal is not used,” he wrote.

Sen. Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, who serves on the national board of ALEC, wrote, “Many of the subjects the Legislature will address during future sessions are discussed at ALEC.”

Merrick is on ALEC’s International Relations Committee, which he said spent time looking at how the European Union is trying to exert greater influence in the United States through giving money to academic institutions and non-governmental groups.

“Congressional oversight is needed to identify exactly how and where the E.U. is intervening inside the United States,” he said.

An agenda of the ALEC conference showed that speakers included former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is now chairman of FreedomWorks; Tucker Carlson, a political analyst; Arthur Laffer, economist and chairman of Laffer Associates; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil and director of Upstreams America; John Castellani, president and chief executive of PhRMA; Steve Moore, journalist and editorial board member of The Wall Street Journal; and David Dieter, head of government and public affairs of Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America Inc.

Steineger said Carlson said Republicans should “shake off the birthers” and “shariah law criers” because they turn off mainstream voters. Steineger also said Armey “gave a rambling, boring ‘speech’ that had little content or takeaway ideas.” He said Laffer said “Carter gave us Reagan” and suggested that Obama will give way to a Republican.

In an interview with the Journal-World, Steineger said he was aware of recent news reports of ALEC’s corporate ties, but said he saw little difference between ALEC and other groups that host conferences for legislators, such as the National Council of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments.
“All have corporate lobbyists hanging around. The Statehouse has corporate lobbyists,” he said. He said ALEC is more free market driven but that all three organizations discuss similar issues.
There are differences, however. NCSL committees are made up of legislators, while ALEC’s committees are made up of legislators and lobbyists. ALEC produces numerous legislative proposals, or “model legislation,” and NCSL rarely does that. In addition, NCSL leadership is bi-partisan, while most of ALEC’s members are Republican.

The NCSL describes itself as “a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation’s 50 states, its commonwealths and territories. NCSL provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.”

The CSG describes itself as the “nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy.”

Merrick, who is on ALEC’s national board, said Kansans are well-served by those who represent them and attend ALEC events. He wrote, “The information obtained at the meetings is timely.”

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