A new report suggests that a conservative group that drafts model legislation for state governments across the U.S. holds considerable sway over Virginia's legislators.
The report, released Monday by ProgressVA, a liberal group, details more than 50 bills introduced by General Assembly members in recent years that are nearly identical to model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Seven of those bills have passed the legislature in recent years, including the 2010 law that set up the state's pending challenge of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
ALEC was founded nearly 40 years ago as "a nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty," its website says.
While only legislators have a vote in the organization's business, ALEC also has a "Private Enterprise Board" with representatives from major corporations such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Pfizer Inc., ExxonMobil Corp. and a firm representing Koch Industries Inc.
"Simply put, a secretive, corporate front group is writing Virginia's laws," said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA. "Legislators who kowtow to a corporate agenda are nothing new in Virginia, but secretly copying and pasting legislation from corporate lobbyists is a step too far."
In Virginia, proposed ALEC-modeled legislation has ranged from immigration and education issues to tort reform and voter identification requirements.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, who served as ALEC's national chairman in 2009, said the insinuation that ALEC was a shadowy, corporate-controlled group influencing the state's legislature was patently false.
"It's really a very benign organization," Howell said, adding that ALEC has "more conservative members than not because it's a free-market kind of thing."
Howell, who serves on ALEC's board of directors, compared the group's function to those of other state legislative organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments.
"It's really disingenuous to say that ALEC promotes model bills and others groups don't," he said, "and the model bills are written by the legislators."
Added Howell: "I would take the (ProgressVA) study with a grain of salt, considering who they are and who they're funded by. It's a very pro-labor, pro-union, anti-free-market type of organization, and they don't like ALEC because of that."
The ProgressVA report also shows more than 100 current and former state legislators with ties to ALEC and reveals more than $230,000 in tax money spent sending legislators to ALEC conferences between 2001 and 2010.
Scholl said the money was paid for "the privilege of our representatives having exclusive access to corporate lobbyists behind closed doors."
Howell dismissed the claim, saying all meetings are open to the public and noting that the state also pays for legislators to attend National Conference of State Legislatures and other conferences.
"The senators love NCSL. At an NCSL, you'll see 20 senators there, and the state's paying for every penny — far more than they're paying for ALEC," he said.
Howell noted that ALEC scholarship funds defray the cost for legislators to attend its conferences, while the state pays dues to other groups like NCSL and the Council of State Governments.