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Taxpayer-funded propaganda tutors

In the recent legislative session, Kansas lawmakers cut spending for essential state services but at the same time set aside taxpayer funds to be schooled by select corporate interests.

Most Kansans would expect to see businesses spend their own funds to influence lawmakers but might be surprised to learn that lawmakers are spending tax dollars for indoctrination by these special interests.

Earlier this month, a number of Republican lawmakers attended the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council with registration fees paid with state funds.

ALEC bills itself as a "nonpartisan" organization dedicated to "free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty."

But strip away that rhetoric and what you find is a distinctly partisan, corporate-financed, tax-exempt organization governed by ideological Republican state lawmakers from deep-red states and corporate lobbyists who work their will on state lawmakers behind closed doors.

These lobbyists have determined they can have more influence with state lawmakers in private through ALEC than by subjecting their legislative plans to public scrutiny at state capitols. Corporate financiers of ALEC are kept secret. ALEC task force meetings are not open to the public or to the media. ALEC does not disclose who participates in its task forces nor divulge which lawmakers enjoy industry-subsidized travel to its meetings.

ALEC's claim of nonpartisanship is dubious. Its governing board is composed entirely of Republican lawmakers, as are all task force chairs. Its state chairs are all Republicans. All keynote speakers at its August meeting were Republicans. Attending an ALEC meeting is like going to a Republican Party convention -- at taxpayer expense in the case of a number of Kansas attendees.

By asserting nonpartisan status ALEC allows Kansas lawmakers to avoid public disclosure of travel expenses picked up by an industry. Kansas law requires disclosure as a gift of any industry-subsidized travel paid directly to a lawmaker, but ALEC essentially launders such subsidies and thereby circumvents public disclosure by either ALEC or lawmakers.

ALEC's agenda is largely driven by corporations that want to be free of state regulation or control the terms of state regulation, for example, businesses engaged in pharmaceuticals, oil, coal, guns, liquor, alcohol, transportation, telecommunications and insurance. ALEC task forces produce "model bills" that are designed to undermine state commitments to renewable energy, public education, environmental protection, voter participation, and employee benefits, among other public purposes.

Recently, one ALEC task force proposed measures so extreme in undercutting public safety and voter participation that heightened public scrutiny of ALEC prompted 49 major mainstream corporations to drop their membership and financial support of ALEC. In turn, ALEC's agenda became even more focused on anti-government, anti-regulatory schemes.

Kansas ties to ALEC are deep. In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback hired ALEC tax-cut guru Arthur Laffer to help the governor eliminate income taxes on business. Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle served as national chairwoman of ALEC in 2006, and Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick serves as state chairman of ALEC. Both Wagle and Merrick sit on ALEC's 23-member board of directors. As an ALEC state chairman, Merrick is responsible for assuring that ALEC's model legislation is introduced in the Kansas legislature and for channeling corporate funds to Kansas lawmakers for travel to ALEC meetings.

If Kansas lawmakers believe they require more purely partisan, ideological indoctrination by industry lobbyists, so be it. They should travel at their own expense. Or, if lawmakers travel at industry expense, they should be required to report the expense as an industry gift.

Channeling taxpayer funds into ALEC lacks both public accountability and transparency.

H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.