ALEC Act Would Give Legislatures Power Over AGs

The conservative group that helped spread Florida's Stand Your Ground gun law across the country holds a closed-door issues conference in Charlotte on Friday. On its agenda is legislation that would prevent a state's attorney general from pursuing lawsuits except as authorized by the state legislature. Peter Overby is at the conference and talks with Audie Cornish.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A controversial organization that brings together conservative lawmakers and business lobbyists is meeting today in Charlotte, North Carolina. The American Legislative Exchange Council has been under attack. Liberals have been challenging its role in developing laws in many states. And they question its status as a tax exempt charity.

The conference is behind closed doors. But NPR's Peter Overby is there to cover it and he joins us now. Hi there, Peter.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So to start, what is this meeting about?

OVERBY: This is where ALEC does its heavy lifting on legislation. It has taskforces on civil justice and education and things like that. They're kind of like legislative committees in Congress, except that their membership is 50/50 state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists. And today, these task forces are dealing with proposals for what's called model legislation; draft bills that lawmakers can take back home and try to get enacted into law.

CORNISH: And, of course, in recent months some of this model legislation has been at the center of controversies for the organization, right?

OVERBY: Yes, definitely. Last month, 13 corporations dropped their memberships with ALEC. That's because liberal groups had gone after them over a couple of ALEC initiatives. One of them was the Stand Your Ground laws based on the Florida law and the Trayvon Martin killing. And the other was Voter Identification laws which Democrats say are meant to keep minorities and young voters from casting ballots in November.

Progressives are also asking the IRS if ALEC deserves its status as a tax exempt charity, or if it's really just a lobbying organization.

CORNISH: So, given all that, what's the mood there?

OVERBY: It's more tense than usual at an ALEC meeting, from what I'm told. ALEC is trying to get its message out that it just generates ideas, not legislation. I spoke with Georgia State Senator Chip Rogers. He's the treasurer of ALEC and he put it this way.

STATE SENATOR CHIP ROGERS: Ideas can come from anywhere, anybody at any time. But the legislative process in the 50 individual states takes care of that process. And nothing can happen until a legislator takes an idea and introduces it.

OVERBY: At the same time, police have been outside the hotel all day watching for an anti-ALEC demonstration, which actually hasn't amounted to much. And inside the hotel, all of ALEC's activities are closed to the public and the press. And the staff has been pushing reporters out of the entire area around the meeting rooms.

CORNISH: So the conference is closed, but do you have any idea then what kind of model legislation they're talking about today?

OVERBY: Yeah, one proposal is called the ALEC Attorney General Authority Act. And to really boil it down, it would give state legislatures more power to tell attorneys general when they can and cannot file lawsuits. Just for example, it says the attorneys general's client is the state, not necessarily the people of the state.

This bill comes from a law firm in Mississippi. One of the firm's clients is a big utility company, Entergy. And in Mississippi the Democratic attorney general has a three-year lawsuit going against Entergy. His question is whether Entergy manipulated prices and overcharged consumers. So this seems like the kind of case that could be reined in by the ALEC Attorney General Authority Act.

CORNISH: And, of course, the next question is sort of how far that act will go, right? I mean do you have any sense about the momentum behind it?

OVERBY: Right, this is the first discussion they're having of it. Eventually it could become model legislation. But if that happens it'll be months down the road from here.

CORNISH: Peter, thank you for talking with us.

OVERBY: I'm glad to do it.

CORNISH: NPR's Peter Overby speaking to us from the American Legislative Exchange Council conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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