Two of Florida's most prominent progressive organizations have issued a warning to the Sunshine State's freshmen legislators: ignore and disassociate yourselves from conservative advocacy groups, but give your undivided attention to left-wing outfits.
That’s the message Progress Florida and Florida Watch Action communicated in their letter. Florida legislators to have nothing to do with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a free-market, nonpartisan think tank that brings together state legislators from around the country to discuss public policy and model legislation.
“[W]e are writing today to warn you about another organization that may contact you: the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC,” the letter reads. “When it comes to out-of-state special interests exerting undue influence over Florida policy-making, no group is more prolific than the bill mill known as ALEC.”
The letter refers to ALEC’s practice of crafting model legislation and proposing it to state legislatures, and says this amounts to “corporations hand[ing] state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line, often at the expense of the public interest.”
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, a longtime member of ALEC and its former Florida state chairwoman, dismisses such accusations as hypocritical nonsense
“That is one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard,” she tells Sunshine State News. “I have been a member of ALEC for a long time; they’re a forum for the exchange of ideas among state legislators, and they provide excellent education. They’re nothing more than that.”
ALEC’s website says some 2,000 Republicans and Democrats are members, though the membership rolls themselves are not publicly disclosed so an exact party breakdown is not available. A report published in July by Progress Florida lists some 61 state legislators who it says have had some sort of affiliation with ALEC, all but two of whom (former Sen. Larcenia Bullard of Miami and former House Minority Leader Ron Saunders of Key West) are Republicans.
A political consultant familiar with ALEC tells Sunshine State News he estimates that about 10 percent of ALEC members are Democrats.
“They [i.e., ALEC] are certainly fiscally conservative; they are business-oriented and interested in growing the economy.” Harrell admits. “But I thought [the letter from Progress Florida and Florida Watch Action] was extremely hypocritical. What they want to do is inform you of their progressive legislation, and their progressive agenda, and they’re castigating ALEC for informing people about business-oriented, free-market types of legislation?
“It’s the pot calling the kettle black,” she concludes.
Indeed, the letter itself admits that Progress Florida and Florida Watch Action “have been active on many issues that protect middle class Floridians: social justice, health care reform, environmental protection, economic fairness, strengthening public education, and more.”
Even a cursory survey of the groups’ websites shows they have no qualms proposing policy ideas or advising legislators to vote in a decidedly left-wing direction. Sunshine State News repeatedly reached out to the two organizations, to ask them the following questions, among others:
“1. What exactly is so nefarious about ALEC, aside from the fact that it has a different agenda than that advanced by leftist organizations like Progress Florida and Florida Watch Action? Is it your position that only left-of-center lobbying organizations should be paid attention to by legislators?
“2. Do Progress Florida or Florida Watch Action maintain a list of their corporate donors (whether corporations themselves or their owners), in particular those who stand to benefit from the policies you advocate for?”
No response has been forthcoming. Might that be because Susannah Randolph, a signatory to the letter and executive director of Florida Action Watch was a registered lobbyist for ACORN around the time her husband, Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, sought a $50,000 grant for the group in 2007? Or because Florida Watch Action has been described as a successor to ACORN, an organization that had to disband after a series of charges and convictions by its workers for voter fraud, and after two of its officials were caught on camera aiding and abetting what they thought was child prostitution and tax fraud?
And as the Washington Free Beacon reported back in April, ALEC is by no means unique in the type of activities it engages in. Several left-of-center organizations and think tanks propose model legislation every year, and lobby or otherwise encourage state legislators to adopt it. Many corporations subsidize both ALEC and its leftist counterparts, such as the Progressive States Network and the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE).
Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, has been ALEC’s Florida state chairman since 2009. He tells Sunshine State News that detractors of ALEC have been unable to provide any evidence of the organization having a disproportionate influence on the Legislature.
“It’s unfortunate that these [progressive] groups seem to be driven by conspiracy theories,” he tells the News. He says he has disclosed all of his public and private legislative correspondence to leftist groups that have asked him about ALEC, and that they have found “zero correspondence between me and anybody at ALEC in terms of ALEC having pushed their model legislation or ideas.”
Indeed, readers can peruse Progress Florida’s supposedly damning report on ALEC online, and see for themselves that there’s little substantive evidence of a legislator crafting bills based on the group’s model legislation. The supposed textual correspondences – which the report claims to highlight in side-by-side columns – are virtually nonexistent.
One exception is Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, but in that case (as the report itself concedes) it was ALEC that based its model legislation on Florida’s. Sen. Greg Evers' proposed "No Sanctuary for Illegal Immigrants Act,” which died in committee in 2011, not even making it to the floor for an up or down vote, is indeed based heavily on ALEC’s model legislation, but that’s only because ALEC’s bill was the basis of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, and Sen. Evers, R-Crestview, based his bill on Arizona’s.
“It’s an unfortunate waste of time these groups are pursuing in making out ALEC to have some kind of mind control over their members,” Patronis tells the News. “I listen to all constituents who come to me with ideas, whether they’re from ALEC or Occupy Wall Street.”
“Every legislator is an independent thinker,” she insists. “They can evaluate proposed legislation on their own terms, determine what they feel will work for the state of Florida, what they are comfortable endorsing and representing. There’s nothing wrong with educational forums like ALEC.”
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (954) 235-9116.