Pulling back the curtain on ALEC in NM: A chat with the ALEC state chairman
Aztec, NM – For weeks, New Mexico’s ALEC-member legislators have been under increasing pressure to resign from the shadowy corporate special interest group behind legislation like Florida’s deadly “Stand Your Ground” law and voter suppression laws across the country. Sen. George Munoz was the first publicly identified member to drop ALEC in New Mexico, and Sen. John Sapien was equally quick to distance himself from the group. So far, almost two-dozen state legislators across the country have resigned from ALEC, along with at least thirteen household name companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft and McDonalds.
But New Mexico’s state ALEC co-chairman Rep. Paul Bandy took an entirely different approach. He responded to ProgressNow’s call to resign from ALEC by announcing a constituent forum Friday morning to explain all the wonderful things ALEC does for him and his colleagues.
We couldn’t miss the chance to be a part, so I embarked on the 350-mile round-trip from Albuquerque just to cover the event.
For more than an hour in the back room of the Aztec Family Restaurant, Rep. Bandy (proudly wearing his ALEC State Chairman nametag) explained how ALEC has become increasingly partisan, talked about the corporate-funded legislator scholarship slush fund he and his co-chair Sen. Payne control, explained how ALEC legislation travels the path from corporate idea to a bill on the floor and how the ALEC origins are intentionally kept from public knowledge.
He even boasts that since becoming a legislator, he has never solicited a single contribution – thanks to mostly ALEC-member companies that just send him money.
He even shared his affinity for the Occupy movement and accidentally disclosed that there are many more members of ALEC in New Mexico than those who have been publicly identified.
The whole forum was an eye-opening experience, both for me and for the half-dozen constituents and one reporter gathered in the back room of the Aztec Restaurant to talk ALEC over biscuits and gravy.
Over the next week, we’ll parse out excerpts from the public forum.
For starters, here are a few highlights. Listen to the clips by clicking the play arrows. Clips will open in a new window (check your pop-up blocker if you have problems).
“Do we need ALEC’s ideas in New Mexico?”
ALEC defenders in the state are quick to promote the “Sunshine Portal” legislation as an example of an ALEC model bill that passed with good results in New Mexico. Unsurprisingly, Rep. Bandy followed suit. But, he added, “had it been known that it was an ALEC model bill, it probably wouldn’t have passed unanimously.”
In that same clip, we asked about using taxpayer dollars to support trips to ALEC events. The co-chairman was quick to compare ALEC to other non-partisan associations for state legislators, but that comparison didn’t seem to fit right with those in attendance. That conversation led to the question:
Can you define ALEC without saying, “lobbying?”
“I don’t see ALEC lobbying, directly, legislators during the session”
One constituent asked for the representative to respond to allegations from Common Cause that ALEC has violated its 501(c)3 non-profit status by engaging in lobbying. It took some fancy wordwork and several attempts at diverting the topic in order to find a way to define what ALEC does without using the word “lobbying.”
At first, it seemed as though Rep. Bandy doesn’t understand what lobbying really is. After first stating that ALEC doesn’t lobby because it is not officially present in the lobby of the House during the session (“that’s where the lobby is” he reminds the woman), he admits that lobbying could occur during the rest of the year and in other ways, he just doesn’t think ALEC does it – directly.
He even jokes with another constituent that if she had a bill she wanted him to carry, she should buy him lunch, give him $2,300 (the maximum legal campaign contribution), and he would consider it. Really.
On how ALEC bills become state bills without the ALEC label and whether the public has a right to know the corporate origins of these bills
The ALEC co-chair explained that ALEC includes both public and private members and how the task force system develops those bills and ultimately presents them for approval by the entire organization.
He tried to differentiate that from lobbying, first by saying that ALEC’s new private state chairman has never lobbied him, then by saying that lobbying only happens during the legislative session. After his constituents laughed off that suggestion, we got down to business.
But when asked why ALEC members do not disclose the corporate origins of the bills they sponsor, Representative Bandy was quick to change the topic. Instead he chose to tell us about passing an eminent domain bill early in his career (one he finally admitted was not an ALEC bill).
Back on topic, he told us, “it can’t be done by the legislator alone… it takes other legislators, interest groups, other groups… and that’s just the way it works.”
On Rep. Bandy’s affinity for the Occupy movement
“And my, uh, experience is that I have a lot in common with some of the Occupy protestors, I mean we have a lot of ideas that are similar. I think if we can get past some of the rhetoric, you know, we can come to some kind of a head and that’s why I invited everybody to breakfast – my breakfast.”
Note for you Occupy organizers. Be sure to invite Rep. Bandy to be a keynote speaker at your next action!
On leaving ALEC
I asked Rep. Bandy how he responds to calls from his legislative colleagues, in New Mexico and across the country, to resign.
“ALEC has become more polarized,” he told us. “I’ve heard, at various meetings, from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich… Herman Cain, Rick Perry. So, we’ve heard from all of these people, and they give very partisan speeches… So, I’ve told people, if we want to keep this a non-partisan organization, we don’t need to do that.”
He also offered some new insight into ALEC’s reach in New Mexico. Early in the conversation, I mentioned the list of 21 legislators publicly identified on the ALECExposed.org website. He casually disclosed that there are more active members than that. So, I revisited that topic.
Rep. Bandy confirmed that the ALEC caucus was larger than publicly known, and he knows – as he says – because it’s his job to be sure that they all keep paying dues. Sadly, he declined my offer to share with us the full ALEC member list.
“I’ve asked anyone for a donation”
I had the chance to ask Rep. Bandy about being labeled a “corporate sponsored legislator.” He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he retorted that never in his legislative career has he solicited a single donation.
That brought a few chuckles and the obvious questions about how he has been freed from having to engage in any fundraising. The answer: it just appears in the mail from ALEC companies.
If you only have time for one clip, this should be it.
And, what about Citizens United?
Two other well-informed constituents in attendance teamed-up to ask Bandy’s impressions of the Citizens United decision which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate dollars in elections. The connection between that decision and the corporation-connected ALEC did not go unnoticed on those in attendance. But, Bandy wasn’t keen on talking about it.
(YES! Something on which we can agree. Membership in ALEC is tax deductible and they conduct political work. And that is wrong).
Pressed further, he declined to share his personal opinion of the ruling, saying it was a Supreme Court decision. After I reminded him that the legislature actually voted on a resolution supporting the overturning of the ruling, he diverted to talk about the uselessness of resolutions.
He finally couldn’t remember how he had voted (He skipped the vote, by the way).
The state chairman’s scholarship slush fund
It has been widely reported that ALEC legislators are eligible to receive scholarships from to attend events at posh resorts every year. But, I’ve never heard anyone explain how those scholarships are paid for.
Rep. Bandy was kind enough to indulge me and explained that he and his co-chair, Sen. Bill Payne, control a corporate-sponsored slush fund from which they approve expenses to pay for members to attend ALEC-related events. And, they need it, he points out, because taxpayer-funded per diem doesn’t even cover all of the hotel costs (little wonder when you are staying at a 4-star golf resort).
He freely admits that he himself has been the recipient of those scholarships, but declined to answer my question about whether he thought members who receive them should disclose those funds as in-kind or direct campaign contributions.
On ALEC and the rise of the “liberal social agenda”
The small crowd was incredibly well informed on ALEC. One woman in attendance read from an ALEC report (“Nation at Risk”) which cited, among other things, the increasing advance liberal social agenda” as the reason for education decline in America.
She asked Rep. Bandy to explain what he thought the “increasingly liberal social agendas” included. His answer: teaching kids conflict resolution. His wife (a very nice woman) also added teaching self-esteem to children as an inappropriate education goal advanced by liberals.
Instead, Rep. Bandy thinks schools should be teaching children to balance checkbooks – an appropriate answer, perhaps, from those working to advance corporate profits over quality education.
Kudos to Rep. Bandy for hosting this forum. To date, no other legislator in the state has been willing to do the same. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what to expect, and he got an earful. Sadly, that might not matter much in the safely conservative New Mexico House District 3. But, as those feisty constituents in Aztec can attest, ALEC is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable subject for members to discuss.
Bottom line: there is more to ALEC than meets the eye. Even in New Mexico, it apparently reaches farther and deeper than anyone has yet uncovered.
For years, membership has had its privileges. Corporate-sponsored slush funds. Automatic campaign donati
ons. Expensive trips picked up by taxpayers and corporations. And all of it free from the critical eyes of your colleagues and constituents.
But, all that appears to be changing as we pull back more of the curtain that hides ALEC and their legislators from the public they represent.