ALEC and NCSL: A Timely Comparison

Two thousand state legislators, business leaders, and think tank representatives convened in Orlando, Florida August 7-9 for the 29th American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual meeting. Two weeks prior, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) held its annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. The differences between the two conferences and host organizations are striking and indicative of the choices that face state governments during difficult economic times.

Both ALEC and NCSL offer model legislation, in-depth policy analysis, database resources, and the all-important annual meeting where politicos of many stripes can debate the topics of the year. This year, the main topic at both conferences was spending: on anti-terrorism, Medicaid, transportation, the environment, and the result of spending too much: budget deficits.

At NCSL, conference participants with the appropriate pass could attend three workshops on the Streamlined Sales Tax Project (SSTP), an attempt to “simplify” state tax codes to include Internet taxation and a uniform sales tax code. Two workshops addressed obesity and ways that states can spend more to curtail the problem. Another policy session examined the “tax pressure” on state revenue coffers apparently resulting from recent federal tax cuts as well as the revenue-boosting benefits of decoupling state death and income taxes from their federal cousins.

On July 25, an NCSL committee discussed the federal budget: “A process originally designed for deficit reduction was meaningless during a period of surpluses. Now that the deficits have returned, the rules are still ignored.” No mention was made of ballooning state deficits, except to blame them on the federal government. Later that afternoon, a committee examined the use of rainy day funds to balance state budgets (spending cuts were hardly mentioned). Another committee recommended gaming revenues as a means of “patching budget holes.”

Meanwhile, ALEC hosted a refreshing policy discussion section during NCSL at a hotel nearby. The topics for discussion were drawn from a recently published paper titled “Show Me the Money” that details spending and inefficiency reduction strategies. Recommendations like state hiring freezes and the elimination of phantom positions, across-the-board spending cuts, market-based and consumer-choice Medicaid reform, selling or leasing government assets and enterprises, and consolidating small agencies were just a few of the pro-taxpayer budget management solutions discussed by the panel and audience that morning. What a breath of fresh air.

Governor Bill Owens of Colorado spoke to a meeting of the National Republican Legislators Association, also concurrent to NCSL, about his state’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights, Colorado’s positive business and income climate, and his opposition to SSTP. More fresh air.

On just the first day of the ALEC annual meeting, various panels addressed the “regulation through litigation” problem in the courts, the “Crisis in State Spending,” “Cost-Effective Medicaid,” and the “New’ War on Drugs: the Pharmaceutical Debate.” Even the titles of these discussions indicate a more moderate approach to the issues of the day, and all conference attendees can attend — no “pass” required.

Furthermore, ALEC speakers are markedly more in touch with reality than NCSL’s speakers. ALEC hosted Secretaries Elaine Chao, Ron Paige, and Mel Martinez, U.S. Representative Mark Green (R-Wis.), and author Bjorn Lomborg. NCSL keynote speakers included Mike McCurry (who “served as White House press secretary during some of the most challenging times faced by the Clinton administration”) and John Sweeney, President of AFL-CIO, who made the serious mistake of attacking ALEC in his speech to an NSCL breakfast audience on July 25.

According to Sweeney, ALEC “positions itself as a non-partisan grassroots organization, but in reality it is a Washington-based group of corporations and wealthy right-wing reactionaries who are spending millions of dollars to usurp state legislatures.” Legislators and numerous others in attendance walked out in protest. NCSL executive director Bill Pound later called ALEC executive director Duane Parde to apologize for Sweeney’s comments.

Sweeney did bring up an interesting point about NCSL and ALEC’s respective membership, although he got the point wrong. Taxpayer dollars enable state delegations of legislators to attend NCSL meetings and to afford the cost of membership and online services. ALEC members, including 2,400 state legislators – 65% republican, 35% democratic – pay out-of-pocket to afford registration, hotel accommodations, and travel arrangements. This would indicate that ALEC is hardly a heavy-handed reactionary with millions to toss around.

Furthermore, not only are ALEC membership dues cheaper than NCSL’s, but ALEC membership costs taxpayers nothing. A one-year voluntary membership to ALEC costs an individual legislator $25. A one-year membership to NCSL, estimated using population and revenue data, costs the California legislature $900,000. Each legislature’s dues are different, but if there are 120 legislators (house and senate) in California, individual NCSL membership works out to be $7,500. If Governor Davis and his Democrat-controlled Legislature are serious about their budget shortfall, I’ve got a great recommendation for making a dent. ALEC is simply a better alternative to NCSL.

Thousands of state legislators attend NCSL and ALEC annual meetings every summer. They are the next generation of Governors, Congressmen, and Cabinet officials: Robert Kasten, Tommy Thompson, John Engler, Terry Branstad, and John Kasich are all ALEC alumni. The differences between NCSL and ALEC aren’t surprising, necessarily, but taxpayers bankrolling involvement in either organization should raise eyebrows. The next generation shouldn’t get too comfortable spending our tax dollars.

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