INDIANAPOLIS – Protest rallies Wednesday painted the American Legislative Exchange Council as a shadowy organization corrupting democracy.
But those supporting ALEC see it as a group of like-minded conservative legislators from around the country – as well as corporations – who can brainstorm limited-government solutions to state problems.
Both sides came together Wednesday as ALEC hosts its 43rd annual meeting in Indianapolis through Friday. Gov. Mike Pence was supposed to speak Wednesday but was moved to Friday because of his national campaign schedule as Donald Trump’s running mate.
Kerwin Olson, head of Citizens Action Coalition, said his group has been stymied in the Statehouse again and again when fighting for clean air, water and energy efficiency.
"ALEC protects corporate polluters at the expense of the planet," he said, calling the group a corporate puppet master.
It is a common refrain against the group, which focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism. ALEC pushes model legislation nationwide, including efforts in the past to institute voter ID, stand-your-ground, fracking and right-to-work laws.
The group won’t make public the names of its members – including the corporations and supporters that fund the group. Many see that as skirting campaign finance laws meant to make legislative business transparent. ALEC is legally a tax-exempt charity.
One speaker said the group gives unelected corporate lobbyists equal votes on bills before they are even introduced in legislatures.
Two rallies Wednesday joined in a march. One involved the Indiana State Teachers Association, while another included a host of labor unions. Several hundred people attended both rallies collectively.
Warsaw Republican Rep. David Wolkins, who has been part of ALEC since the early 1990s, scoffed at the characterization. He is one of Indiana’s two state chairs and previously led an environmental task force for four years.
"The unions try to make us look like a total right-wing Republican organization," he said.
He said members aren’t made public because they are often threatened by fringe groups and opponents. And he said the corporate dollars are needed to run the organization and provide staffing and expertise to legislators tackling key topics. Legislators pay much lower membership fees than companies.
Wolkins said many education reform proposals have been developed through ALEC – which is what has drawn the scorn of teachers’ unions.
"They have a right to protest. I have no problem with that," he said. "I just wish the ISTA would spend more time concerned about the educational opportunities of the students than the teachers."
Phyllis Bush, of Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, spoke at the ISTA rally Wednesday. She told The Journal Gazette that most of the education legislation pushed by ALEC is "built around the concept of the privatization of public schools" and "pushing the idea of vouchers and charters at the fiscal expense of public schools."
Bush thinks some legislators truly believe they are helping to fix schools but don’t bother to talk to educators to see how the legislation is hurting instead.
Molly Drenkard, spokeswoman for ALEC, pointed out that the groups’ workshops and sessions are open to the media and that its draft model policies and task force agendas are on the website. Reporters have also been invited to broadcast Pence’s speech live.
"It’s clear the activists who label us as ‘secretive’ only do so to intimidate and silence free market groups and their ideas," she said. "Activists who believe smear campaigns can replace intellectual policy debates show how little they respect ideas. ALEC is proud to stand for free speech and the exchange of ideas to make government more efficient and accountable to taxpayers."