By: Jeff Patch
DES MOINES—Iowans should be outraged that an out-of-state group that doesn’t disclose its donors and aims to influence policy exists to bend the ears of state lawmakers, according to state Sen. Joe Bolkom, D-Iowa City—never mind that Bolkcom chairs a liberal counterpart based on Wall Street that also takes undisclosed donations to impact state policy.
Bolkom invited left-wing nonprofits with ties to the Obama Administration and organized labor to the State Capitol to bash the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit educational group that advances free-market principles through a public-private partnership of state lawmakers, business leaders and limited government activists.
Progress Iowa, a year-old umbrella group for liberal advocacy organizations, and Citizens for a Healthy Iowa, a front group for environmental activists, joined forces to create an anti-ALEC campaign.
Progress Iowa, a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt entity which formed a year ago, has not yet filed IRS tax returns listing its annual revenue or salaries for officials. Liberal ethics scolds have derided such groups as corrupt vessels for “dark money.” The group pitched their recent screed, “ALEC Exposed in Iowa,” to a crowd of about 40 liberal activists, Democratic legislators and statehouse journalists Tuesday.
“We’re calling ALEC out because we think they have a disproportionate say-so greater than they should,” Bolkcom said.
A spokesman for ALEC called the effort an “ongoing smear campaign taking place in state capitols around the country.” The reports, all titled “ALEC Exposed in [INSERT STATE],” conflate campaign contributions by company PACs and membership in ALEC to passage of legislation—virtually all measures are free-market, limited government bills that Republicans have long supported.
“ALEC promotes state-based solutions and pro-growth economic policies to create opportunity for all Americans through the academic exchange of ideas,” said ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling. “Council members participate in regular taskforce meetings to study and discuss public policy trends and relevant research to identify opportunities for model policy creation. Democracy is a participatory process where ideas are shared and the best ideas are advanced.”
There’s no doubt that ALEC’s legislative members lean right-of-center and promote conservative, market-friendly policies. But ALEC officials say that its critics should focus on promoting their own ideas instead of falsely smearing its opponents.
“No person or group has a monopoly on good ideas,” Meierling said. “We welcome the participation of our detractors. We would rather they join in the conversation than levy baseless and inaccurate claims that focus on false political intrigue instead of proactive discussion about policy solutions.”
In their criticism of ALEC, Progress Iowa executive director Matt Sinovic, a former Kansas-based Democratic operative, and Lisa Graves, the executive director of a liberal media group, highlighted the hypocrisy of Bolkcom, the national chair of a liberal counterpart to ALEC.
Progressive States Network, officially called the Progressive Legislative Analysis Network, (PSN) formed in 2005 as a liberal counterweight to ALEC. The 501(c)(3) organization—the same tax-exempt status as ALEC—provides “coordinated research and strategic advocacy tools to state legislators and their staffs.” Like ALEC, they aim to “get good policy passed into law and change the way issues are debated in the states.” The network’s operatives even “serve as surrogates for legislative staff members who need talking points.”
The group, based on Wall Street in New York’s financial district, does not disclose its donors, but it receives funds from labor organizations, “netroots” groups and “key policy centers.” A foundation run by George Soros donated $300,000 to PSN in 2009, according to the Washington Free Beacon. From 2006-2010, the most recent year that tax records are available, the organization raked in about $6.3 million from liberal donors.
“At [ALEC] resort meetings, they’re wined and dined by these ALEC corporate lobbyists at fancy dinners, cigar parties,” said Graves, a former lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic Senate staffer. “It’s a schmooze-and-booze-fest.”
“We don’t hold lavish retreats where legislators sit side-by-side with corporate interests and get an equal voice,” Sinovic said, trying to distinguish liberal organizations from ALEC.
However, Progressive States Network hosts similar legislative retreats for liberal state lawmakers, corporate donors, labor union leaders and Obama Administration officials.
Last November, the group held its annual “Legislative Leadership Retreat” at a swank hotel in Washington, D.C.
Hyped participants include the president of a major labor union, a federal bureaucrat with the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services and activists with groups such as the National Abortion Fund. The network solicited donations of up to $20,000 to attend the conference. Those donors, in the “Champions Circle,” enjoyed a hotel suite upgrade, a VIP cocktail reception and the opportunity to direct its contribution toward a program of the donor’s choice.
Bolkcom, the organization’s national chair, delivered the retreat’s welcome and overview. State Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, spoke on the retreat’s first panel on health care, which promoted Obamacare and offered state legislators a checklist to ensure that the law is robustly implemented in 2013. Bolkcom has event skipped Senate votes to party with his allies in Washington, D.C.
“My colleagues are meeting tonight. I’m missing some votes,” he said at the 2007 Progressive States Network Gala. “The Progressive State[s] Network is doing an awesome job of providing support to colleagues, legislators around the state on a whole host of progressive issues… I especially say to the financial supporters of the network: good job, keep it up.”
Sinovic’s group also actively engages in political and policy fights in Iowa.
A precursor to Progress Iowa—sharing the same corporate name—was registered by Erin Seidler in 2011. The 501(c)(4) expired in Feb. 2012, a month before the new organization was formed. Seidler, a former communications director for Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and the Iowa communications director for President Obama’s reelection campaign, works as a senior advisor for strategic planning at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The federal agency is currently negotiating Obamacare implementation with Gov. Branstad’s administration. Meanwhile, Progress Iowa has sharply criticized Branstad for pushing to reform Iowa’s health care system while rejecting an expansion of the troubled Medicaid program.
Progress Iowa and its sister organization, Citizens for a Healthy Iowa (CHI), ran negative advertisementsin 2012 against state Rep. David Maxwell, R-Gibson, and former state Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City. The 30-second ads, entitled “His Mistress, ALEC” that distorts ALEC’s role in Iowa’s legislative process, alleging that the group wants to “sell off our clean water and public land.”
Maxwell defeated Grinnell city councilor Rachel Bly 53-47 percent, an 840 vote margin, in swing District 76covering Poweshiek and part of Iowa County. Taylor lost his race to Democrat Chris Hall by the same percentage—53-47 (795 votes separated the two candidates).
Hypocritically, the ad bashes the candidates for networking with the “shadowy group” while CHI is a 501(c)(4) corporation than can accept unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals without disclosing its donors. The group’s is mission to “advocate for issues related to” public health, agriculture, economic development and the environment.”
The entity, which has not yet disclosed its annual revenue, was formed in late 2011 by an attorney at Des Moines law firm Hedberg & Boulton, which has waged legal and public relations battles against Branstad on behalf of public employee unions. Firm attorney Mark Hedberg represented AFSCME Iowa Council 61, a vocal Branstad critic, in its recent arbitration with the State of Iowa over health care premium contributions and salary increases.
Essentially, the message of Bolkcom and Progress Iowa is that nonprofits who don’t disclose their donors shouldn’t wage policy fights in states—unless they support left-wing policies, liberals and Democrats.
This article was originally posted on The Iowa Republican on March 14,2013.