Say ALEC The American Legislative Exchange Council and the name elicits praise and scorn.
Such was the case when the group held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City recently. Open-government advocates said what was going on behind closed doors between legislators and well-heeled business leaders was anti-democratic. Common Cause and other groups held a counter-conference and protested. A Democratic legislator resigned her membership.
Top lawmakers defended the group's utility and said that anything the group considers ultimately must still be vetted through the Legislature's public process.
Whatever your take on ALEC, the group has been the genesis of some good open-government legislation. However, a disconnect comes when the group seems to live by different openness principles than those it advocates for government.
To their credit, state Sens. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, say they want to change that. For example, they invited journalists to attend ALEC sessions to help demystify the group's activities. That's not surprising since both Bramble and Niederhauser, Utah co-chairmen of the ALEC group, also have built their political reputations on transparency and open-government initiatives.
Contrary to ALEC's secret stereotype, transparency legislation Niederhauser sponsored is championed by ALEC. Around the halls of the Utah Legislature, Niederhauser is often called "Mr. Transparency." A number of bills he sponsored have created Utah's transparency website an idea endorsed by ALEC. As a result, transparent.utah.gov makes available hundreds of local and state budgets with a click of a mouse.
For Bramble, he has taken on the role as the "GRAMA guy," sponsoring the cleanup bill that came in the wake of the failed HB477. The law, repealed by lawmakers in a special session in 2011, would have dismantled major provisions of Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). Bramble received praise from open-government advocates for shepherding the 2012 consensus bill. Ironically, if the Utah Legislature would have followed ALEC's suggestions for transparency legislation, they may have avoided the GRAMA embarrassment a year earlier.
Just because ALEC has some good open-government ideas, certainly not all of the ideas associated with the group foster openness or support the First Amendment. Far from it. Utah was one of several states to adopt an ALEC-favored "ag-gag" law to restrict recording and documenting of agricultural activities. While the sponsor changed the bill after Utah media groups raised concerns, the First Amendment would be better off without such laws.
On the horizon is an ALEC model law that would require more transparency for government entities that hire and use outside attorneys for legal work. The bill would require competitive bidding, oversight and transparency to limit government spending on outside attorneys. At least 20 states have considered and/or passed the model bill, according to the ALEC website. While it sounds like a good idea, the devil may be in the details.
It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Any good ideas about how to open government are welcome from any source, including ALEC. At the same time, ALEC should examine how it practices privately what it preaches publicly about transparency, including increased accountability about how business and money influence legislation.
Joel Campbell is an associate journalism professor at BYU. He writes about First Amendment and open government issues for The Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.