Updated: January 4, 2012, 3:39PM
An investigation released this week says that Virginia lawmakers take a “disturbing” number of cues from a conservative group that pushes model bills on state legislatures nationwide.
The Virginia General Assembly introduced at least 50 bills since 2007 that appear to be near carbon copies of legislation first imagined by the American Legislative Exchange Council, more widely known as ALEC, the report found.
The investigation was paid for and released by ProgressVA, a liberal organization affiliated with the national advocacy group ProgressNow. The organization said the results demonstrate that ALEC holds a “disturbing level of influence” over Virginia’s elected officials.
The report also said taxpayers spent more than $230,000 to send state lawmakers to ALEC conferences, where they then met with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors. Of the bills apparently drafted by ALEC, three became law, the report said.
ProgressVA’s executive director Anna Scholl said her state is particularly vulnerable to the influence of a group like ALEC because the general assembly only meets for a short time each year. Legislative sessions last only 45 or 60 days a year, depending on whether a budget is in the works.
“There’s not an extensive amount of time for research,” Scholl told TPM. “One of the reasons that ALEC has been able to build so much influence here is that it’s an easy resource for legislators.”
The legislation, she said, is “just handed to them.”
Another reason, she said, is because the state’s Speaker of the House, Bill Howell, serves on ALEC’s board and was once its national chairman. Howell did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for for the group hit back against ProgressVA on Wednesday, saying the organization’s views were “extreme” and often put it on the opposite side of ALEC.
“ALEC members share a common philosophy of limited government, free markets and federalism,” spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss wrote in an email to TPM. “We understand that organizations like ProgressVA and its ally, People for the American Way, oppose these principles, and they are free to do so.”
ALEC has come under increased scrutiny in recent months after the Center for Media and Democracy published a leak of more than 800 model bills and resolutions crafted by the conservative organization.
Scholl said ProgressVA used that leak as the basis for its investigation. First, the group figured out which lawmakers had attended ALEC conferences and then compared bills those lawmakers sponsored to the leaked model bills.
Although ALEC is officially nonpartisan, most of its members are Republican because of its bent toward free-market and limited-government issues.
Scholl said ProgressVA was able to link a few of the state’s Democrats to the organization, but the lawmakers who were influenced most by ALEC were “overwhelmingly Republicans.”
Scholl said her group plans to watch for ALEC bills throughout this year’s legislative session, which convenes Jan. 11.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com