A national organization criticized recently for churning out prewritten bills to state legislatures across the country has been a platform for some of the more controversial laws passed in Oklahoma in recent years.
“Model legislation” developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council or shared through conferences the council has hosted, played a part in a 2006 “Stand Your Ground” law that allows Oklahomans to use deadly force when threatened in public places, a 2010 resolution that prohibits any law from compelling a person to purchase health care and a state question that same year that requires voters to show an identification card before receiving a ballot.
Several laws under consideration now — including bills that allow for covenant marriages, that would challenge the teaching of global warming and evolution in public schools and that would reject key provisions of the new federal health care law — have identical versions that have either been passed or are also under consideration in GOP-led legislatures elsewhere.
“That's somebody out of state telling Oklahoma how we want our laws enacted and what we want,” said Richard Lerblance, a former Democratic Senator from Hartshorne. “It's not necessarily coming from the people in Oklahoma; it's coming from out of state.”
The council was among several national groups that advised Gov. Mary Fallin in 2011 to resist development of a state health insurance exchange, a primary tenet of the new federal health care law.
Other “model legislation” made available through the council, according to its website, includes ones that would reduce personal income taxes for residents — a top legislative priority this year for Fallin as well as the Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives.
The authors of all seven bills filed to reduce the personal income tax said they were not influenced by the legislative exchange council also known as ALEC in drafting the bill language.
“As the author of most tax cut bills we had last year, I didn't have one meeting with ALEC,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. “My bills are my bills.”
A spokesman for the council was unable on Friday to provide a directory of Oklahoma lawmakers who currently pay membership dues, but directories from previous years indicate at least 25 state lawmakers, mostly Republican, have participated in previous conferences.
Gov. Mary Fallin was chosen as the council's “Legislator of the Year” in 1993, when she represented Oklahoma in the U.S. House of Representatives. The council will host its spring summit in Oklahoma City this May.
Emails provided to The Oklahoman earlier this month indicate a policy adviser for the council offered assistance to the state's Insurance Department in scrapping plans for a health exchange in 2011, but Fallin's spokesman, Alex Weintz, said the organization played no role in her decision to return $54 million in federal grants earmarked for exchange development.
“ALEC is a conservative organization, and Gov. Fallin is a conservative governor, so it is possible there is overlap in their agendas,” Weintz said. “Gov. Fallin's agenda was drafted without the help or input of ALEC.”
Oklahoma lawmakers who participate in council functions, and who sign their name to bills promoted by the council, said it's a common way for states to share resources and experiences.
Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, said the council is but one of several national organizations where she goes to learn about what other states are doing to tackle problems also experienced in Oklahoma.
A bill that would give teachers the right to present the “scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories” such as global warming and evolution — authored by Kern two years ago and re-presented this session by Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne — is identical in language to bills recently passed in Louisiana, Texas, South Dakota and Tennessee.
“If one state has passed the bill and that bill has been found to be workable and has not been challenged by the court then you try to use that same bill,” Kern said. “They give us the model legislation and we give that model legislation to our staff and the staff looks at it and then they tweak it to fit in with existing laws that Oklahoma already has.”
It's the same process by which Oklahoma legislators have proposed deregulating environmental protection programs and a bill that requires drug testing for people who subscribe to welfare assistance.
“More eyes on a bill makes for better legislation,” said Bill Meierling, the council's senior director of public affairs. “Just because a model policy has been adopted by (the council) doesn't mean that policy is taken at large and pushed upon the people of Oklahoma. Instead, a legislator may find a piece, a ‘whereas clause' in our model policy, and say that makes sense.”
The council has come under fire lately for furthering the “Stand Your Ground” and voter ID laws in other states, but most of the criticism comes from those who complain it gives corporate interests unfettered access to lawmakers.
“What it really is a lot of, you know, ideologically right-wing and corporate entities who are pushing policies that help their bottom line,” said Gene Perry, policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute in Tulsa. “It's giving them access to lawmakers, and it's not really always clear where the idea's coming from or what's really behind it.”
For example, lawmakers who developed a template for “virtual school” bills at a recent council function did so at the same table as the private vendors who provide such services, part of the council's Education Task Force.
Rep. Ann Coody, R-Lawton, is chair of that task force and Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, is an alternate member. A Virginia-based company called K12 — which already provides virtual learning programs on a limited basis in Oklahoma — is a co-chair of the task force.
Stanislawski, who could not be reached Thursday and Friday, has filed a bill this year that would provide a more expansive virtual learning program through the state Education Department for vendors such as K12.
“This idea that corporations impose their wills on legislators is kind of unfair to legislators,” Meierling said. “Those legislators are the stopgap to make sure whatever legislation is enacted is representative of the people, and in fact the democratic process ensures if they don't they won't be in office anymore.”
He said though the council drafts legislation through a public-private partnership, model bills developed through the committees are proposed, adopted and voted on by the public sector participants only.
Jaclyn Cosgrove, Staff Writer