Private Sector Shaping Public Policy
As state governments play an expanding role in setting public policy, many of the nation's largest corporations and trade associations are pouring millions of dollars into tax-exempt organizations that promise to help them cultivate working relationships with state lawmakers and executives.In exchange,organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the Council of State Governments (CSG), the National Governors Association (NGA), the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) provide corporate sponsors with extraordinary access to elected officials and the opportunity to help shape the policies recommended to state and local governments nationwide.The organizations -- most of which receive taxpayer subsidies -- are designed to serve state and local elected officials and their staffs. But accommodating such generous corporate and trade group sponsors as American Express, AT&T, EDS, Philip Morris, 3M, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Steel Recycling Institute, and the National Restaurant Association appears to be nearly as important a priority.For an annual, tax-deductible contribution of $3,000, CSG and NCSL, for example, offer businesses and associations the same services and benefits that state government officials and their staffs enjoy. But the real bonus for paying members is the "opportunity for dialogue" with state lawmakers."These groups obviously have a lot of substantive discussions," says Chemical Manufacturers Association spokesman Tom Gilroy. "And we want to be a part of them."CSG's Associates Program, which the organization describes as "a vital link in public/private partnerships," has approximately 165 corporate and trade group members. Membership fees buy associates the opportunity to attend CSG committee and task force meetings and participate in CSG's regional and affiliate networks."Committee and task force meetings are meant to be information oriented and the role of the private sector is to add to the information exchange," says Howard Moyes, a CSG Associates Programm staff member. He said committees and task forces bring together state policy-makers to explore common solutions to common problems.Judging by the CSG membership rosters, these "information exchanges" have an overwhelming corporate bias. For example, members of the Environmental Task Force include Texaco Inc., BP America, Ogden, Goodyear, Eastman Chemical Company, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and the American Petroleum Institute. Health Capacity Task Force members include Wyeth-Ayerst, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, Merck & Company, Pharmacia & Upjohn, Pfizer Inc., SmithKline Beecham, and Hoechst Marion Roussel, Inc. Businesses are paying for the chance to participate in crafting state policies that directly affect their bottom lines.One of CSG's longest-standing and most prestigious committees is the Suggested State Legislation Committee. Only state lawmakers can sit on the committee, which convenes four times a year to evaluate "model" legislation from across the country. Bills receiving the full committee's approval make it into CSG's annual volume, "Suggested State Legislation, "which is distributed nationally to key state legislators, committee staff members, and some administrative agencies, and is sold to the general public.Associates have no vote on the committee, but they are welcome to participate in the process of developing suggested state legislation. Associates are provided with meeting dates, times, and agendas, and those interested in legislation under consideration can show up to "work the committee from the outside, to lobby," says Bill Voit, a CSG senior project director. There is open discussion during the meetings, so anyone attending can address a measure under consideration.The meetings are open to anybody -- not just associates -- but finding out about them is another matter. While associates are told when the committee will meet and what it will consider, anybody else has to know enough to check the calendar on CSG's Website or call the council's offices for information. Of the 39 guests at the committee's April 12 meeting, 19 represented corporate interests, seven represented trade associations, and 13 represented state legislatures.Associates are also eligible for "unique networking opportunities" with CSG's 15 affiliated organizations, which offer their own corporate memberships. The American Probation and Parole Association, for example, counts some of the biggest names in the corrections industry among its corporate members, including Ameritech, ABS Comtrak, BI Incorporated, Lockheed Martin, PharmChem Laboratories, Inc., and Roche Diagnostic Systems. Other CSG affiliated organizations include the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors, the Conference of World Regions, and the Council of Licensure, Enforcement, and Regulation.Like CSG's Associates Program, NCSL's Foundation Program offers members "increasing opportunities for more valuable dialogues among state legislators and private sector decision makers on today's critical issues," a marketing brochure explains. Foundation memberships are open to any entity, says Jerry Sohns, the foundation's Director of Development. About half the foundation members are corporations and most of the rest are trade or industry associations.Among other benefits, foundation members are eligible to participate in meetings with committees composed of state legislators from across the country, where a variety of policy issues (such as health care, electricity deregulation, and criminal justice) are discussed. Sohns says the NCSL Foundation offers members "the opportunity to be able to relate to the topics the committees discuss.""Committee members are willing to listen to what private sector representatives have to say," he adds. "In fact, we are encouraging this sort of dialogue between the public and private sector."Another way NCSL encourages such "dialogues" is with its Foundation Partnerships, which only are open to foundation members who make annual contributions of at least $10,000. Foundation Partnerships, says Sohns, generally consist of an equal number of representatives from the private and public sectors who jointly study a particular issue. Past Partnership projects have looked at solid waste, state budgeting processes, education financing, and electricity deregulation.Once a topic is chosen, NCSL appeals to its high-level foundation contributors for financial backing.Principles of a High-Quality State Revenue System, for example, was underwritten by American Express, AT&T, the National Education Association, PepsiCo, Philip Morris, and United Parcel Service. In exchange for underwriting project expenses, partnership sponsors get a seat at the table, the opportunity for "dialogue" with participating legislators, and a say in determining the "guiding principles" that the project will recommend to lawmakers across the country."If you were going to start a 'new' state and needed to comeup with a particular policy, this is the policy you'd suggest,"Sohns says, explaining the basic idea behind the patnership projects. The culmination of each project is publication of a "guiding principles" manual, which is sent outto key lawmakers, legislative staff members, and relevant agencies around the country."It allows foundation members to come in at the front end of the process rather than the back end," Sohns says. The adoption of term limits in many states give the foundation partnerships extra influence, he adds."You have a new crop of inexperienced legislators coming into office who are looking for ideas and help in understanding the issues," Sohns says. "Partnerships serve this purpose well."But like his CSG counterparts, Sohns dismisses the notion that NCSL is selling influence when it grants to companies bankrolling the foundations seats at the table where policy recommendations are drafted."That's a lot of nonsense,"he says. "All meetings fall under the sunshine rule, meaning anyone can attend. NCSL is a huge organization and the foundation provides structure to what can be an unwieldy arena. The foundation is there to help members figure out who they need to talk to and how to go about doing that."That's an advantage, of course, that ordinary citizens who can't pony up $10,000 for a foundation partnership don't enjoy. When paying members get "front-end" access, the shape of proposed legislation is pretty well defined by the time it makes it to the task force hearing stage, when anybody is free to participate.Yet, it's the taxpayers -- through appropriations by their state legislatures -- that pay the largest share of the operating costs of CSG, NCSL and similar organizations. Even the corporate cotnributions are partially subsidized by the public, since the gifts are tax-deductible. Since the public is footing much of the bill, should the "privileged information" available only to special-interest contributors be considered public information?For example, NCSL Foundation members can use NCSLnet on-line services to access information archives, fiscal summaries, various databases, and documents. Foundation members also can input materials describing their "point of view on state issues," through something called LEGISNET, a "discreet file within the NCSLnet system." Then, whenever a legislator or legislative staff member in any of the 50 states uses LEGISNET to do a keyword search, all position papers submitted by NCSL Foundation members that contain that search term are found.Though some of the money used to maintain the NCSLnet system comes from foundation membership dues, most of it comes from state appropriations, a spokesperson with NCSL's computer systems department said. So, taxpayer dollars are being spent to disseminate corporate and trade association position papers to state legislatures. And that raises another question: Since the public is paying for LEGISNET and the system provides information to state lawmakers formulating legislation, shouldn't the public have free access to it?"If the information is coming from private entities, but is being put forth by a non-private entity and that entity is funded by public dollars, then the information, particularly if it relates to the legislative process, would seem to be included under the public records law," says Florida Press Association spokesperson, Dick Shelton. Florida's sunshine laws are considered among the best in the nation, and public access might vary from state to state.Kathy Mears, press assistant to Florida House Speaker, Daniel Webster, says members of the public would have to ask legislators individually for on-line access, since there's no way of knowiung which lawmakers might be using LEGISNET."Some [lawmakers] might be open to letting constituents browse the on-line information that is available to them and others might not," she says. "The best thing to do would be to make a written request. It's a request that legislators would have to deal with on an individual basis. But if they have already downloaded or printed out the information, the public has a right to see it."Marian Currinder is a graduate student at the University of Florida and was a communications intern this summer at the Center for Responsive Politics."Capital Eye" is a publication of the Center for Responsive Politics. Its goal is to educate readers, encourage them to examine the role of money in the U.S. political system and explore its effect on the workings of our democracy.