By BRANDON LARRABEE, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE, July 26, 2012..........A coalition of liberal groups issued a scathing report Thursday saying that the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization for state lawmakers, has an inordinate amount of influence on the Florida Legislature.
ALEC's critics also charge it with pay-for-play lobbying on behalf of corporate backers, but the council counters that its critics are nothing more than political opponents with an ax to grind.
The groups -- which include Progress Florida, Florida Watch Action, the People for the American Way Foundation, Common Cause and ALEC Exposed -- released the report as the council's annual meetings in Salt Lake City got underway. ALEC's critics say they are trying to call more attention to the organization now in part because documents they recently obtained reveal more about the inner workings of ALEC.
"Despite claims to the contrary, ALEC’s agenda is not based primarily upon ideology, but mostly upon pecuniary rewards for its corporate funders," the report says. "The resulting ALEC 'model bills' that have been adopted by ALEC 'task forces' have been introduced in Florida by ALEC representatives and have amended Florida statutes for the worse, harming the rights and opportunities of everyday citizens in the process."
ALEC's ability to shape the agendas of state legislatures across the nation has increasingly drawn scrutiny from liberal and Democratic groups in recent months, though veterans of state capitols have often been aware of the organization for years.
"Unfortunately, what we found is that that influence is very strong here in Florida," said Damien Filer of Progress Florida.
But Doug Clopp of Common Cause also said the state isn't that unusual.
"Florida is no different than dozens of other states where ALEC has a very, very firm grip -- if not stranglehold -- on the legislative process," Clopp said.
The report paints ALEC as a secretive organization that, contrary to its repeated denials, lobbies for certain legislation. It includes emails to ALEC members in Florida saying that the group supports the policies that comprise certain bills, though the messages do not say that the organization supports the actual measures.
The report also details corporately-funded scholarships used by lawmakers in Florida and other states attending the organization's meetings. And it goes line-by-line to show how significant portions of some measures proposed in Florida virtually mirror model legislation published by ALEC.
But Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City Republican who is the public co-chair of ALEC for Florida, said all the money in the scholarship fund for Florida was raised before stricter ethics laws were approved. And Patronis said he doesn't believe ALEC is engaged in lobbying.
He knocked the report as a collection of conspiracy theories that stretch the truth.
"I think it's some of the most interesting and entertaining creative writing I've seen in a long time," Patronis said.
An ALEC spokeswoman said the organization is not unlike the National Council of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group for lawmakers, and that the final say on model legislation is left to a board of elected officials.
"ALEC members are participating in the democratic process and exercising their right to free speech just as groups like Progress Florida are," Kaitlyn Bus wrote in an email. "The difference is that we are effective and enjoy broad, bipartisan support across the country."
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