Documents released last week show one-third of Wisconsin’s lawmakers are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization which supports free-market policies and helps to write state legislation alongside corporate sponsors.
The internal records were made public by The Guardian in the United Kingdom, who exposed the records as ALEC conducted a conference for legislators and its corporate sponsors in Washington D.C. Keynote speakers at the conference included ALEC members U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
Patrick McIlheran, Johnson’s spokesperson, said, “ALEC is a forum of state lawmakers swapping ideas to see what works, while promoting strength in the state government made for the people, and promotes an orientation toward a freer country.”
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who joined ALEC in August to attend a summit in Chicago, said legislators on the council “are wine and dined by big corporations.”
The legislators then work with corporations to create model bills to maximize profits for the businesses, Taylor added.
“The legislators are foot soldiers rewarded for going ahead and pushing the bills that benefit corporations,” Taylor said.
McIlheran said Johnson does not see the group as being pro-business but as a “pro-liberty group.”
The group also provides a forum to allow state lawmakers to exchange ideas about policies working in each state, McIlheran said.
However, Taylor said ALEC “depends on secrecy.”
“ALEC does not disclose what they are doing,” Taylor said. “If people understood the corporate policies and the amount of money used to push the profit-maximizing bills, there would be huge backlash.”
The corporations sponsoring the conference in D.C. include Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, Peabody Energy, Altria and Wells Fargo, according to the Guardian documents.
Progressive groups do not like ALEC because they are “opposed to liberty,” McIlheran said, although the group’s goal is to make the country “more free,” and to scale back powers of the federal government.
A local Madison government watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, brought a lawsuit in June against state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, current second vice chairwoman for ALEC, for not disclosing documents related to the group.
Vukmir and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement that Vukmir is exempt from lawsuits since she is currently in office.
Vukmir also claimed she did not have any documents relating to ALEC, although Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, said she has sponsored bill meetings and attended ALEC conferences in the past.
“The lawsuit underscores my point that ALEC depends on secrecy,” Taylor said. “Sen. Vukmir doesn’t want people to know how she interacts with ALEC and how ALEC influences her.”
Currently the lawsuit is being negotiated and could lead to a settlement, Fischer added.
Vukmir said in an email to The Badger Herald, “As always, we meet as state legislators to exchange ideas on legislation that will make Wisconsin a better state. That is the primary goal of its members and my role with ALEC.”
Despite the criticisms from progressive groups and leaders, McIlheran said Johnson shares similar key issues with ALEC: federalism, free markets and limited government.
McIlheran added creating a freer nation makes for a “better country,” and the exchange of ideas between legislators “is a good thing.”
Alex Stearns contributed to this article.