Corporate-sponsored Iowa laws should not be tolerated


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Corporations — including Walmart, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Kraft Foods — are helping to write bills proposed in the Iowa House of Representatives.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is a quiet organization founded in 1973 with the goal of advancing a platform of, according to its website, "limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty." The Exchange Council is composed of large corporations and state lawmakers; together, they craft "model bills" that are then pushed by Exchange-Council members across the nation.

Some legislators are pushing bills based on — or even identical to — the Exchange Council's model legislation right here in Iowa. The use of model legislation drafted in part by private entities is an affront to the democratic process and to the federalism that the Exchange Council claims to advance; Iowans have a right to know which legislators are collaborating with big business, and they should reject these legislators and their agenda.

The Exchange Council lists some, but not all, of the model legislation on its website. The other legislation was acquired by the Center for Media and Democracy, an admittedly left-leaning group, which made the legislation available to the public as part of its "American Legislative Exchange Council Exposed" project.

Since the beginning of the legislative period in January, there have been at least five bills that borrow language or complete text from the Exchange Council's model legislation: HF6, an act requiring a searchable tax-rate database; HR4, a resolution aiming to withdraw Iowa from the Midwestern Regional Greenhouse-Gas-Reduction Accord; HF95, which would require voters to present photo identification; HSB19, which gives only state government the power to pass firearms restrictions; and HF285, which forces an annual report on "intellectual diversity" in Iowa's public universities. Other bills, including bills that aim to counteract federal health-care reform and prohibit the state from regulating firearms during an emergency, are part of Exchange Council's agenda but not written by the organization.

None of these bills passed, and few made it out of committee. But even the proposal of legislation taken directly from a public-private partnership is concerning. Taking bills straight from the drafting room (where they were composed in part by private interests) to the floor of the Iowa House — without any mention of the origins of the legislation — bypasses citizen input and undermines the principles of democratic governance.

Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, sponsored or cosponsored three of the five Exchange-Council bills that the DI Editorial Board found. When asked, he played down the significance of the group. "There's nothing sinister, there's nothing secretive about it," Watts told the Editorial Board on Thursday.

"The Exchange Council is open to the public. Anyone can be a member."

Anyone who pays the large fees required, except for lawmakers, who receive a vastly reduced bargain rate.

The Exchange Council isn't a conspiracy; it's not some big-business Illuminati. But it is a serious imposition of private interests into public governance. Instead of bills being written specifically for the needs of a state, or even state collaboration to solve regional problems, they're written en masse for reproduction in legislatures across the country. Bills pushed by national corporate interests are difficult for average citizens to fight; nationwide identical legislation at the state level takes advantage of more-accessible federalized power to effectively advance a particular agenda. While this agenda is conservative, a liberal organization like the Exchange Council would be just as damaging to the democratic process.

Iowa doesn't have the worst case of Exchange-Council perniciousness; that dubious honor goes to Wisconsin, whose Republican-dominated Congress has pushed through numerous Exchange-Council bills, including the infamous collective-bargaining measures, a voter ID bill (nearly identical to that pushed here in Iowa — it came from the same model legislation), and (in the early 2000s) a spate of telecom deregulations.

The legislators responsible for the Exchange Council bills in the past legislative session include Rep. Clel Baudler, Rep. Renee Schulte, Rep. Dawn Pettengill (who received $8,500 in campaign contributions from Exchange-Council corporations in 2010), and, of course, Watts. These legislators are failing to do their jobs. Representatives are elected to serve the needs of their constituents, which they cannot do if they are simply mouthpieces for private interests. If we allow Iowa's legislators to simply copy and paste bills that have already been voted on by big business, there is hardly a need for them; they are turned into middlemen.

Not all legislators who support Exchange-Council legislation necessarily know the origins of these bills. But many do, and many, including Watts, are responsible for perpetuating privately generated bills in the Iowa Legislature.

In a remarkable display of implausible denial, Watts told the Editorial Board he'd been advocating for HR4 — which would remove Iowa from the Midwest Regional Greenhouse-Gas-Reduction Accord in a boon to business — for a long time, and that he wasn't sure how similar it was to the Exchange Council bill.

It is, of course, identical.

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