A spokeswoman for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which works on state-level public policy issues, would not say how many Oregon lawmakers are part of the group, but it's Oregon chairman, Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Bend, told The Oregonian (http://bit.ly/Krtsq5) that 22 Republican legislators are members.
He said the group often referred to by its acronym, ALEC, is "a great resource" for a part-time legislator whose staff consists of his wife and an aide who works three days a week when the legislature is not in session.
"We have such limited staff that this helps us look at things and consider them," he says.
ALEC has been around for nearly 40 years as a forum for business and conservative state lawmakers. Discussions have sometimes led to "model legislation" passed by legislators.
The group's influence has made more headlines since 2010 when Republicans and conservative Democrats made gains in state races and ALEC's policies on public employee unions, environmental regulation and taxes came into question. The group also backed the "Stand Your Ground" bill at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. The teenager was shot and killed by an armed community patrol volunteer.
Unlike groups that hire lobbyists, ALEC operates as a registered charity in 37 states. It depends on the private sector for most of its income. Lawmakers pay $50 per year for membership. Corporate and individuals pay $7,000 to $25,000.
Common Cause asked the IRS to investigate whether the group is a lobbying organization.
"It is a concern that ALEC's corporate donors may have gotten undeserved tax credits," said Janice Thompson, executive director of Common Cause Oregon. ALEC corporate board members contributed $2.2 million to Oregon legislative candidates between 2001 and 2010, according to the group.
ALEC attorney Alan P. Dye described the IRS complaint as "frivolous" and an attack by "liberal front groups."
ALEC legislation introduced in Oregon includes bills to privatize prisons, vehicle registration and parks administration. Another bill would have required state agencies to report job openings that are not filled for more than six months, and to explain why the positions are needed.
Most of the bills never got a hearing.
A "Stand Your Ground" bill, which gives broad legal protection to anyone who says they used deadly force because they feared death or great bodily harm, has not been introduced in Oregon.
Whisnant said he does not approve of all that ALEC does and some of its proposed legislation will not fit in Oregon.
Oregon lawmakers once had their own nonpartisan researchers but they were eliminated. Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said she relies on committee staff, the National Conference of Environmental Legislators, and Oregon advocates for information on issues.
Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University professor who studies legislatures, said it's not shocking that special interest groups offer legislative language used by lawmakers.
"Legislators don't sit down with a quill pen and draft legislation," he says. "I think legislators should have the right to turn to wherever they want to get the ideas they prefer... I have some confidence that they're not being flimflammed."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com