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ALEC balks after experts say it should register as Minnesota lobbyist

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MahurinPointing_Thumb1_2515.jpg

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a non-profit organization that brings corporations together with state lawmakers to create and advocate for model legislation. Minnesota experts on lobbyist disclosure say ALEC’s activity here requires the group to register as a lobbyist under state law.

ALEC denies that the organization lobbies state legislators.

“We’re not lobbyists because we don’t lobby, none of our staff are registered lobbyists,” ALEC spokesperson Raegan Weber told the Minnesota Independent Wednesday. “We take a policy position. Just as most Americans have an opinion on policy, so do we, but we do not do a call to action, according to the IRS there has to be a call to action.”

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the open-government group Public Citizen, agreed that the federal lobbying disclosure requirements likely don’t apply to ALEC because the main focus of the organization is on state lawmakers.

But Holman said that state lobbying disclosure laws — including Minnesota’s, which are some of the toughest — do apply.

“A model law falls under an exemption, under nearly all lobby laws, as being just an educational guideline that’s widely distributed,” Holman said. “If it stopped there it wouldn’t pass the threshold, but the fact that ALEC then exercises and then does these direct activities to meet with lawmakers in Minnesota and to proselytize this model law and then help them draft it into actual state legislation, that crosses the line.”

Two Minnesota lawmakers attended a recent ALEC convention in New Orleans. Other members of the state legislature participated in a meeting in St. Paul with ALEC staff on March 4, 2011, where staff presented ALEC policy “recommendations.” Both events are examples of the sort of activity that helps ALEC cross the threshold of the state’s definition of lobbyists.

Under the state’s definition of a lobbyist, ALEC clearly qualifies, Holman said, and “should register and disclose their penalties and activities in Minnesota.”

Hamline University School of Business professor David Schultz agreed with Holman’s assessment.

“There have been, over the years, several groups that have operated nationally that operate in the state of Minnesota, and they somehow think they don’t have to comply with state law when it comes to trying to affect state elections or lobbying the state legislature. They consistently get this wrong,” Schultz told the Minnesota Independent Wednesday. “They’re not breaking any federal laws but they still have to conform with state law and state registration laws.”

In Minnesota, ALEC’s private sector chair is Comcast lobbyist John Gibbs, according to records from the Center for Media and Democracy and the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Weber said that lobbyists who are also corporate members, or in Gibbs’ case, a private sector chair of the organization, don’t represent ALEC, and that it’s only the ALEC members’ responsibility to register as lobbyists.

Both Schultz and Holman said the law doesn’t see ALEC and private sector lobbyists who are members as unrelated entities.

“Any lobbyist that works with an association, and that association also crosses that threshold for lobbying activity, they’re all required to report and disclose what they’re spending,” Holman said. “I fully expect Minnesota’s lobby law would capture all this [activity].”

On the federal level, Common Cause, an open government advocacy group, wrote a letter last month suggesting that the IRS audit ALEC to see if the group has violated its tax-exempt status by lobbying.

But most states don’t closely police who registers as a lobbyist, partly to avoid chilling the public’s constitutional right to lobby their elected representatives. States instead hope that professional lobbyists will voluntarily register to disclose their spending, Holman said.

“You hope these lobbyists have the integrity to disclose where their money is coming from and how they’re spending it. I’m sure Minnesota is just expecting that to happen, which is why they’re not proactively enforcing the law against ALEC,” Holman said. “Now that ALEC has become such a major public controversy, I think the Minnesota state agency is obligated to be a little more proactive on this.”

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