By Charlie Parke
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org
Most of America supports gun background checks for gun purchases, medical marijuana, gay marriage, limiting the power of lobbyists and large cash donations to elections. Often government opposes these measures which creates a system where citizens’ concerns are not addressed or thrown away. Legislators are elected to represent the people but many feel they are really representing big money interests for a small group of wealthy people and large corporations. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is often accused of being part of the problem.
The gap between what citizens vote for and what legislators enact into law is deep in Arizona. Arizona citizens passed medical marijuana three times through ballot initiatives. The legislature overruled the first two and, some claim, are slowly dismantling the 3rd through raids and rule interpretations while 80% of Americans support the use of medical marijuana. The legislature often overrules such measures through small legal changes such as when Arizona passed Medical Marijuana in 1996. The state added a requirement through HB 2518 that the federal government approve marijuana before the voter passed law allowing a doctor to write a prescription goes into effect. Citizen led ballot measures passed increasing healthcare programs by using lottery funds, the legislature promptly decided the Powerball lottery tickets were no longer considered a lottery and through a number of measures the legislature made sure not one dollar from the lottery went to healthcare. These actions by the legislature have been described by Richard Mahoney,former Arizona Secretary of State, as telling citizens “we know better than you”. Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods has stated, “The voting citizens of this State, have had a voice that is being continually ignored by State Elected Officials”. Citizens initiatives have responded by making the legislatures ability to circumvent voter’s choices harder and removing powers by creating independent commissions for jobs like redistricting. Arizonans may be protesting the legislature’s behavior after a ballot measure to require legislators to stop raising their own salaries was passed by the voters and quickly overturned by the government. Recently there was a 100 million dollar foreclosure settlement with banks which was stipulated by the court to help homeowners. The Arizona legislature first removed 50 million dollars in 2012 and saw the rest stripped in 2013 without any money being given to help distressed neighborhoods or underwater homeowners.
Bills that support citizen’s interests are commonly introduced in the Arizona legislature and killed. In 2013 sixteen Arizona legislators introduced a bill to overturn Corporate Personhood which allows largely unlimited donations by corporations in elections. While a public support campaign was launched by many groups the legislature never scheduled the bill for a hearing. Ninety-three percent of Americans want GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) foods to be labeled for consumers. An Arizona bill was introduced in 2013 but was never given a public hearing, despite requests from citizens, thus denying public comment and a legislature. A candlelight vigil at the legislature marked the death of a 2013 bill aimed at ending LGBT bullying in schools, which while popular with many groups was also never assigned a public hearing or comment period.
Some would argue legislators simply don’t care what voters want in part because the success of their elections comes largely from other sources. Large corporations make many of the campaign donations, do much of the lobbying and in some cases even fly legislators to expensive resorts for wine, shooting events and cigar parties to discuss legislation. Private citizens, especially those of the lower to middle income range, have little chance to compete with these practices and have long complained that corporations buy legislators. One group often protested due to accusations of buying legislators is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) which often has corporation’s sponsor’s legislators to private meeting where unelected corporate members and elected representatives draft legislation which is often introduced in legislatures across the country.
Many Arizona legislators belong to ALEC and regularly introduce legislation like SB1070. According to NPR, the bill was drafted at a ALEC meeting of Russell Pearce and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – a private prisons company which benefits from migrant detention. NPR noted CCA gave donations shortly after to 30 of SB1070’s 36 co-sponsors, likely influencing their policy decisions. Seventeen bills introduced in the Arizona legislature in 2013 are reported to be ALEC bills.
A recent report from the Center for Media and Democracy and other groups details more than $200,000 worth of gifts paid to legislators through the Arizona ALEC “scholarship” fund, coming from corporate lobbyists. By using ALEC as a middleman organization, the fund operates to hide the actual identity of the corporations who wrote the checks. Large donors have included Salt River Project, University of Phoenix and Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold. Many states have passed laws to prevent these hidden campaign finance gifts and in Arizona Steve Farley attempted to introduce an ALEC accountability act to require public disclosure here. Like many laws seeking change it was never given a committee hearing, so no chance was given for public comment or a vote even though the bill gained national attention.
Denied a voice many groups have protested ALEC meetings and ALEC members physically and through letters asking members to leave the organization. When ALEC came to Arizona in 2011 hundreds of protesters from Occupy, the Unitarians and other groups greeted them. Outside of the ALEC Summit flyers being distributed making voters aware of which legislators were ALEC members. Since then several corporations have left ALEC and many ALEC legislators retired or were defeated. As ALEC approaches there first conference in Oklahoma this May, their influence seems to be diminishing in the legislature which has resulted in the passage of fewer bills.
ALEC bills in Arizona for 2013 have largely died without a hearing. This year their list included attempts to oppose President Obama’s healthcare plan, to move money from public schools to private through vouchers, end public pensions for government employees, and to call for a constitutional convention for a balanced budget amendment. The only measure that seems to have a chance of success is a resolution supporting the 2nd amendment. These issues have the support of many Arizonans but with protests greeting ALEC conferences and frequent protests at the capitol of ALEC bills it’s possible the association is hindering the bills it used to help.