OLYMPIA, Aug. 2.—At a time when labor and activist groups are calling for lawmakers to tear up their membership cards in a right-of-center legislative support organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Bellingham-area senator is asking, okay, what about all the others?
State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, says the state Legislature ought to pull the plug on all the groups in which it is a dues-paying member. Last week an internal Senate panel decided 5-1 to pay dues for 2013 to three such organizations, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. The groups submitted bills to the Senate of just over $200,000; the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee voted to pay half what they asked.
It is a matter that has been brought into focus by the national political furor over ALEC, a group which has become a target for labor and activist organizations. Financial support from corporate interests and its advocacy for pro-business, anti-regulatory model legislation lately has put ALEC in the cross-hairs. The wedge issue has been its support for “stand your ground” self-defense legislation that was spotlighted by the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. Pressure from activists has prompted several corporate sponsors to pull out, including Amazon.com, following a Seattle protest staged by Fuse Washington. The group called on Washington state lawmakers to renounce their memberships.
Ericksen certainly won’t. An ALEC member himself, Ericksen points out proudly that it doesn’t charge the state a membership bill. “The one that gets the most heat doesn’t get any money from the state,” he says.
Instead he says the state ought to renounce the other groups — or at least stop paying the bills. He sent a letter this week to the Facilities and Operations Committee urging just that. At a time like this one, he says Washington just can’t afford it.
Lawmakers are ALEC Members
Actually, ALEC does get state money, but in a different and much smaller way. ALEC doesn’t charge an institutional fee; instead individual lawmakers can join. Many seek reimbursements for membership dues as part of their office expenses. Eight senators did so in 2010 and 2011 for various amounts, Ericksen among them for $100 – a total $2,150. Four House members sought reimbursement in 2011. That may not cover everyone, however. 2012 bills haven’t all been processed; lawmakers could pay membership dues from leftover campaign money converted to office funds, or they could simply pay out of their own pockets. The state also has paid for travel, lodging and per diem to ALEC events.
As for the other groups, the Legislature gets an overall bill, split equally between the House and Senate. But for the last few years it has been shorting the payment. Since 2010 the Senate has paid only half its assessments — about $200,000 total to NCSL since 2010 and $160,000 to the Council of State Governments. The House paid 75 percent to NCSL in 2010 and 2011, and 50 percent for 2012. It paid the full bill to the Council of State Governments in 2010 and half in 2011 and 2012. Bernard Dean, House deputy chief clerk, said it’s a matter of tight budgets; the Legislature has been paying as best it can. “They provide us with a great source of non-partisan research,” he said.
NCSL, perhaps the best known of the legislative groups, offers research into state-level policy issues and lobbies Congress on issues of general interest to state and territorial governments, though it does not advocate for model legislation, said spokesman John Kuhl. Three forums annually offer state officials “a chance to learn about what other states have been doing, what works and what doesn’t.” The presidency rotates between Republicans and Democrats; all 50 states and American territories are members; each state’s membership extends to all lawmakers and legislative staff members.
As for Washington’s state’s short payments, he said, “It is not common, but in these tough economic times, Washington is not the only state we have worked with to continue their membership without paying full dues. It is our hope that Washington will soon return to paying their dues in full.”
50 Percent Called Too Much
Ericksen says even 50 percent is too much to pay at a time when the cupboard is bare. There may be members who appreciate the functions provided by those organizations, he says, and if they do, they ought to be allowed to join individually, as they can with ALEC.
“I’m calling on the Senate to stop funding these organizations,” he said in a statement. “It is simply not a priority of state government. While ALEC may not receive state funding, the other groups do, and these types of expenditures add up. This is a perfect example of why we need to go through budgets line by line to ensure what’s being funded accurately reflects our priorities.
“We’ve cut allotments for the Senate page program. Stipends for legislative interns have been eliminated. There’s no doubt in my mind that educating some of our state’s future leaders is more important than paying dues to these organizations that can raise money in other ways.”