Some controversies never seem to go away. Democrats are upset about taxpayers supporting the dues and travel to ALEC, a conservative organization financed by corporations. David Montgomery has a good story on the issue here.
By request, I’m posting a story that we ran on Feb. 28, 2010.
No telling who pays for lawmaker travel
S.D. doesn’t require reporting of trips paid by private groups
South Dakota taxpayers spent almost $220,000 in the past five years sending lawmakers to meetings sponsored by a conservative group that supports free-market policies.
That money didn’t cover all the travel costs, however.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, with the help of business partners, also helped pay for state lawmakers to attend conferences where proposals for new laws are developed.
How much they spent, and which corporations are involved, is not known.
That’s because South Dakota - unlike many other states - doesn’t require lawmakers to report the money, or even the existence of these trips.
Driven by a growing budget deficit, legislators in recent weeks debated whether to put more restrictions on taxpayer-funded out-of-state travel.
Missing from that debate was discussion of travel paid for by business or special-interest groups. South Dakota lawmakers in recent years have traveled to Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and conferences in the U.S. - all without any documentation.
The lack of reporting can make lawmakers susceptible to influence from special interests, an open government advocate said.
“We should know who writes checks, or who gives gifts to our elected officials, and that should be public record,” said Reynold Nesiba, an economics professor at Augustana College.
Participants at the ALEC gatherings don’t merely influence legislation, they help create it. Lawmakers sit side-by-side with industry representatives to draft proposals. They bring those proposals back and try to make them laws.
Trips sponsored by ALEC offer a glimpse into the travel practices of some South Dakota lawmakers. Some of the legislators cite their value.
Industry’s stake in writing legislation
Former state Rep. Hal Wick said it’s important that industry groups are at the table when legislation is created.
The South Dakota Legislature has a cap on the number of lawmakers who can use taxpayer money to attend ALEC conferences. So ALEC - through its business members - paid for some lawmakers to go to conferences.
Wick wanted more lawmakers to have the opportunity to attend, so he set out to raise what he calls scholarship money. He sent letters to businesses asking for their help: Pharmacy companies, automotive manufacturers, utilities, tobacco companies and the alcohol industry all were on the list.
He also organized an annual hunt in South Dakota. There’s no charge for the hunt, but lobbyists are asked for donations of $100 to $500.
“I raised dollars from anywhere I could,” Wick said.
No requirement to report trips in S.D.
The difficulty in finding out details of the trips extends beyond ALEC or any other single group. Lobbyists, trade groups, businesses and foreign governments can pay to fly lawmakers around the nation or the world. But there are no records of those trips because lobbyists and lawmakers are not required to report them under South Dakota law.
5 years, $900,000 in taxpayer-paid trips
Earlier this month, Rep. Shantel Krebs, R-Renner, proposed a two-year suspension of taxpayer-funded, out-of-state trips. Since 2005, lawmakers have spent about $900,000 on such travel.
Republicans in the House State Affairs Committee killed Krebs’ bill 8-4 in a hearing where the pros and cons of taxpayer-funded travel were debated. But travel paid by special interest groups was not part of the debate.
Though it’s impossible to know whether the groups paying to fly lawmakers are trying to influence public policy, it’s clear that lawmakers - particularly those in leadership positions - get solicitations to attend.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Knudson said he gets invitations, but he’s rejected them. “Going out of state for legislative boondoggles is not in the cards,” he said.
“I’ve gotten invitations to this deal or that deal that typically say some group is willing to pay for it,” Knudson said. “I can say I’ve never attended anything like that, but I can say there are some opportunities. I don’t know how widespread they are.”
Former Rep. Joel Dykstra took a trip financed by the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry to participate in a panel discussion in Florida. Dykstra, who left the House in 2008, did not recall the exact time of the trip, but he said it happened after voters rejected a measure that would have repealed the gross receipts tax on wireless companies in 2006.
Dykstra, one of the leaders in the fight to repeal the tax, said he was invited to share his perspective on the issue during two panel discussions. The association paid for his airfare and a couple nights in a hotel.
The experience, he said, helped him better understand issues in the industry.
“It’s all about providing information on issues,” Dykstra said. “It is valuable to talk to regulators and industry representatives.”
‘You get a lot of offers’ to travel
The government of Taiwan also has paid for South Dakota lawmakers to travel there. Senate President Bob Gray said he’s been invited but never has gone. Because of the lack of reporting requirements, it is not known exactly how many South Dakota lawmakers have traveled to Taiwan or other countries.
“You get a lot of offers,” Gray said. Many come through the state’s membership with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Rep. Joni Cutler traveled to Saudi Arabia for 10 days in October and November with a grant sponsored by the NCSL through the U.S. Department of State and the Saudi government. She was among 10 state legislators from across the country who participated.
The delegation met with government officials, business leaders, university officials and others, Cutler said. They talked about business opportunities and women’s issues. She still e-mails friends she met there.
“It was such an amazing trip, and one that impacted me personally so much that once I get talking about it, it’s hard for me to shut up,” she said.
Legislator doubts policy influenced
Cutler said she learned that while Saudi Arabia has plenty of money, it needs educated professionals and experts to help build its economy. That’s where South Dakota business leaders can help.
Cutler said she doubts lobbyists or interest groups are trying to influence policy here.
“As far as junkets with lobbyists, I can’t think of anybody who has been on a trip like that, and maybe that’s why we’ve never bothered about it,” she said of reporting requirements.
“Maybe lobbyists just don’t care that much about South Dakota. That kind of thing, as far as I know, just doesn’t happen.”
But influence peddling through travel has happened elsewhere. At the national level, lobbyist Jack Abramoff flew elected officials, their families and staffers to exotic locations around the world in a bid to influence policy.
Corporate and lobbyist-paid trips for state lawmakers are becoming more common as states cut their budgets for taxpayer-funded trips, said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. And that’s troubling, he said, because the sponsors of those trips want something in return.
“I actually think it’s a bigger problem than when the taxpayers pay for it,” Stern said.
Other states require disclosure of trips
Many states require lawmakers to disclose those trips. In California, for example, lawmakers must file annual disclosure forms in which they detail personal finances and whether they took any trips sponsored by a group or organization. They also must report any gifts. Some states bar the practice.
In South Dakota, financial disclosure documents are required only of candidates for office. Legislators are not barred from flying, eating, drinking or playing golf on a lobbyist’s dime.
“As long as it’s not in the nature of a bribe - if it’s not in that context, there’s no prohibition,” said Secretary of State Chris Nelson.
Conservative group prompts skepticism
The conferences sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council offer a window into the world of third-party financed trips for South Dakota lawmakers.
ALEC describes itself as an alternative organization to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments. The three groups all work on policy proposals, and lawmakers in South Dakota are members of all groups.
But ALEC is different in a couple of ways. Business can buy memberships into the group for $7,000 a year, and nonprofits for $3,500 a year, said Jorge Amselle, the group’s spokesman. Memberships on task forces cost thousands more. Lawmakers, meanwhile, pay just $50 a year.
The names of the businesses that belong to ALEC are confidential. But what isn’t secret is the group’s political stance.
“We are unique in that we involve the private sector as equal members in drafting model legislation,” Amselle said. “We’re free-market oriented. We don’t make any secret about that.”
Lawmakers and business representatives work together to draft proposals that go to legislatures across the country. Democrats in South Dakota are suspicious of the group. Earlier this month, they tried to end taxpayer-funded trips to ALEC conferences.
But Wick sees the group as a positive. ALEC, he said, is different than other groups because of its conservative leanings, and that’s a good thing. Other groups include government bureaucrats as members, while ALEC doesn’t. ALEC is interested in trimming government while the other groups want to grow government, Wick said.
“To me it’s a counterbalance that’s really necessary,” he said. “We don’t want to put every business out of business.”