This week's annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council comes at the tail end of a year that was one of the group’s worst – and one of its best.
Early in 2014, ALEC lost some of its most esteemed corporate partners - including leading tech companies Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook - who decided not to renew their memberships following complaints that the organization questioned climate science.
But then came Election Day in November, which delivered massive gains for Republican state legislators backed by the group and left a record number of state legislative chambers in GOP hands.
Thus ALEC is ending the year with upticks in the number of corporate members and in interest from state legislators. The group's incoming chair, State Rep. Phil King (R) of Texas, said the winter meeting in Washington has drawn the third highest attendance numbers in ALEC's history, including 43 newly elected state lawmakers.
A Tuesday night Capitol Hill dinner for donors, legislators and corporate friends included a formal salute to "partnership" offered by a state issues adviser to Altria, the tobacco and food conglomerate that now owns well-known wineries on the West Coast.
At the dinner, one Washington tech lobbyist, Steve DelBianco, lamented the recent departure of Google and other tech firms from ALEC - and predicted the companies would return.
DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a Washington-based trade association, said leading tech firms fled ALEC because of unrelenting pressure from media and shareholder groups. Google executive Eric Schmidt announced his company's withdrawal in a live radio discussion with a caller to the Diane Rehm show. Employers are very practical, DelBianco said.
"With two thirds of state legislatures in Republican hands, the case for being present at ALEC is self evident," DelBianco said.
ALEC operated outside of the public eye for most of its 41 years. It came under scrutiny from labor and other left-leaning interest groups who began to note the organization's success in passing "model" bills in labor, environmental, criminal and election law. Several years ago, Common Cause and the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy revealed internal ALEC documents showing the role played by specific companies and interest groups such as the National Rifle Association.
ALEC became the subject of national headlines after the February 2012 shooting in Florida of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. The "stand your ground" laws used as a defense by the man charged with the shooting had become a model ALEC bill after it passed the Florida legislature at the behest of gun-rights advocates. The shooting led to the first round of corporate defections from ALEC.
The organization now focuses on economics and education rather than issues like crime, Nelson said. The once-secretive group is also inviting reporters to previously closed meetings, including Tuesday's dinner with donors.
A look at the ALEC meeting agenda suggestse an increased focus on model bills aimed at blocking proposed federal rules limiting carbon and other emissions from power plants. The group is also considering proposals to limit EPA enforcement of water rules and to promote greater flexibility in deepwater oil and gas drilling and in the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Attendees will also discuss whether to rein in state subsidy programs for renewable energy.
On Thursday, a Washington public relations executive presents a session entitled "Big Green Radicals." That's the title of a public relations campaign organized by Berman & Co., a Washington lobbying firm seeking undermine the credibility of major environmental groups.
A coalition of environmental, civil rights and labor groups distributed a letter this week urging legislators in all 50 states to avoid the organization. "ALEC is a polluter-funded group that increasingly tries to obscure the purposes and impact of the legislation it is peddling," said the letter, signed by 100 groups around the country including national organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council , the League of Conservation Voters and the Union of Concerned Scientists.