July 28, 2011; Source: Salon | Earlier this month, the NPQ Newswire mentioned stories about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which was working on legislation in several states drafting model business-friendly legislation for members of state legislatures. We reported that Common Cause was challenging ALEC’s 501(c)(3) status because, it alleged, ALEC seemed to be operating primarily to further business, not charitable interests, and might be guilty of excess lobbying.
Salon now reports that state funding in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Kansas is paying for state lawmakers’ ALEC membership dues. Salon also mentioned that Pennsylvania tax funds covered $50,000 in catering expenses for ALEC’s 2007 conference in Philadelphia, an odd use of public funds, especially since ALEC is “dedicated to drastically cutting government spending.” The $50,000 included $4,000 for Philly cheese-steaks and $3,000 for cheesecake lollipops.
Governmental agencies frequently pay for the professional membership dues of legislators and other officials, and presumably state legislatures pay dues for memberships in nonpartisan organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments. ALEC undoubtedly characterizes itself in the same class of nonpartisan think tanks, though Common Cause doesn’t agree.
The catering item in the Pennsylvania state budget “was something that was hidden from members and no one knew anything about this,” according to former State Rep. Karen Beyer, a moderate Republican. Terry Shaffer of the state government watchdog, Democracy Rising PA, criticized the ALEC catering appropriation, saying, “The tradition in Pennsylvania is for the corporate interests to pay for our lawmakers’ merriment, not the other way around.”
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We aren’t sure that that is much of a defense. The tradition, not unique to Pennsylvania, of corporations paying for legislators partying and cold cuts isn’t particularly attractive. There has to be a process of states ascertaining whether the nonpartisan nonprofits receiving government funds are truly nonpartisan. This practice is now under scrutiny in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and elsewhere. But turning to corporations to pay for lawmakers’ merriment isn’t the answer.—Rick Cohen