ALEC opens up (a bit)

The basement of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., has become a temporary shrine to the political right. Pamphlets, pens, stress balls and Frisbees from conservative groups including the Charles Koch Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste litter exhibit tables. Tea Party dignitaries such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence keynote long luncheons. The past three days have featured panels with titles like “The Disclosure Ruse: A Campaign to Restrict Corporate Speech.”

Among the attendees at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual States and Nation Policy Summit are eight Republican delegates from the Montana Legislature. After a closing speech from Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist on Dec. 6, three of the legislators—Sen. Roger Webb of Billings, Rep. Jonathan McNiven of Huntley and Rep. Doc Moore of Missoula—gather to chat about lessons they might take home.

“You’re kind of flying with people that are at the same level from other states that have actually done some of these things,” McNiven says. “If it pertains to your state, then you’re able to take that knowledge … bring it to Montana and craft it in the Montana way.”

Much of the benefit the trio sees in ALEC’s summit comes from informational panels and casual conversations. But on Dec. 5, roughly 100 protestors lined the street outside to oppose a more secretive exchange: ALEC’s task force meetings, during which legislators and corporate members work together crafting model legislation. The Guardian recently released new ALEC documents containing an oath for ALEC state chairs to “put the interests of the organization first.” In response, protestors carried leaflets with an oath calling for legislators to serve constituents.

“To be honest with you, it’s a pretty benign pledge,” said Diallo Brooks, a protestor with People for the American Way. Brooks, who was stopped by security guards inside the hotel, added that the individuals he approached shielded their conference badges. This reporter witnessed one ALEC attendee remove his badge entirely when walking through the hotel lobby.

McNiven says he was unaware of the protest until hours later. He, Webb and Moore were also unaware that, while panels and luncheons were open to the press, task force meetings were not. They insist there’s nothing for Montanans to fear. Webb defends ALEC’s transparency, which the organization itself says is improving. Webb adds during the two task force meetings he attended, corporate members rarely spoke up.

“You didn’t miss anything,” he says, before inviting the Indy to attend future ALEC events as an official guest of the Montana delegation—in the interests of truly unrestricted access.

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