CHICAGO — More than a thousand conservative lawmakers and business executives are gathering this week for a conference that could shape a new wave of Republican legislation in state capitols pushing for deeper tax cuts, limits on union powers and a private-sector makeover for government Medicaid programs.
Attendees at the American Legislative Exchange Council were countered Thursday by a roughly equal number of protesters upset by the close ties between big businesses and lawmakers. As meeting participants handed out awards and dined at a meal sponsored by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, picketers denouncing "corporate greed" paced the sidewalks and clogged the street in front of the Chicago hotel hosting the conference.
The conservative organization's 40th annual meeting comes as it is experiencing increased influence because of the growth in Republican-led legislatures and enhanced opposition from liberal-leaning groups that have successfully persuaded some corporations to drop their support of the council. Businesses provide the bulk of the financing for the association, and industry officials serve with lawmakers on closed-door, issue-oriented task forces that develop model legislation for states.
The organization has more than 600 current model bills spanning a full range of issues, from accountability in government to zoning regulations.
"ALEC is about helping public policymakers look at issues from all different sides — to gather information, to gather research," said Republican Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a former lawmaker who delivered the group's keynote address Thursday after being honored with its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.
But opponents of the organization contend lawmakers are listening too closely to the corporations that foot most of the bill for the several-day conference.
"I'm tired of corporate greed," said Nancy Holmstrand, 68, a retired public school teacher from Chicago who joined in the protest. "They're able to make laws based on their financial power that benefit the top 0.2 percent."
One of the group's most recent high-profile initiatives was a state-based rebuttal to the federal Affordable Care Act that sought to outlaw the individual insurance mandate at the core of President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law. At least 17 states have adopted laws or constitutional amendments modeled on the ALEC initiative, though their effectiveness is questionable because the Supreme Court upheld much of the federal health-care law last year.
On Thursday, Florida state Rep. Matt Hudson was treated like a hero for his role in blocking a state Medicaid expansion that was called for under the federal law and backed by GOP Gov. Rick Scott and some Republican state senators.
"The notion that Medicaid is somehow a great program is nutty," Hudson, R-Naples, told conference attendees during a how-to session that also touted tax cuts passed in Kansas and a right-to-work law limiting union powers in Michigan.
But Hudson said Republicans lawmakers cannot stop at merely rejecting the Medicaid expansion that, at least initially, would be fully financed by the federal government. He encouraged states to follow Florida's lead in passing laws requiring insurers to document how the federal law has affected customers' private-insurance premiums and to revamp Medicaid without expanding eligibility to low-income adults who aren't caring for children.
Some of the other topics at the conference focused on ways to overhaul education financing laws that currently allow little school choice for parents and how to advance coal-friendly energy policies. Businesses or groups that fork over a substantial sponsorship payments often have speaking roles at meals or workshops. Because of that, ALEC's private-sector chairman, C. Stevens Seale, of SAP America, urged attendees to keep down their chatter at Thursday's lunch before an official from the Texas Oil and Gas Association spoke about the economically damaging effect of the federal Endangered Species Act.
"The private-sector members spent a lot of money to get your attention and let you hear their messages during this event," Seale said.
Among the scheduled speakers Friday are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and St. Louis-based lobbyist Travis Brown, who said his firm Pelopidas paid a six-figure financial sponsorship of ALEC. Pelopidas is heavily bankrolled by retired investment executive Rex Sinquefield, who currently is footing a more than $2 million advertising campaign in Missouri aimed at persuading the Republican-led legislature to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a bill cutting the state's income tax.
About one-fifth of the states already have passed income tax cuts this year. Income tax opponents are preparing to broaden their push to other states in 2014 and, as Brown described it, to "double down" with even deeper tax cuts in several Midwestern states.
The ALEC meeting provides "a very valuable networking opportunity to share best practices, to share models for what worked and didn't work in states and to set priorities for future years," Brown said.