In 2019, I was one of a group of women who went to the state House in Phoenix to testify against a proposal to open a new women’s prison. We’d practiced for hours, believing our voices could make a difference. But in the end, Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, shut down all input from the public, denying us the opportunity to address lawmakers.
This was one of the experiences that inspired me to run for the Arizona House of Representatives. Growing up in Arizona, I recognized that many state leaders weren’t looking out for us, but I didn’t understand why. I know now that the Legislature is a haven for the rich and powerful, including corporations from out of state.
Nothing demonstrates the endemic corruption in Phoenix more vividly than the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the pay-to-play operation that collects hefty fees from corporations in exchange for private access to state lawmakers. ALEC is a national group, but Arizona has long been a stronghold. It was a secret ALEC meeting in 2009 that produced SB1070, the infamous bill that allowed law enforcement to racially profile any Latino. Today’s GOP leaders are ALEC stalwarts. Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, for example, is ALEC’s national chair.
Yet, it is also here in Arizona that ALEC faces a challenge from citizens in the form of a lawsuit that went before the state Supreme Court on November 15. The case argued that 26 lawmakers violated our state’s Open Meeting Law by attending a 2019 ALEC conference in Scottsdale. Because the lawmakers composed quorums of committees, the suit says, the secret deliberations and drafting of laws amounted to unlawful decision-making by a public body.
The law, it seems, is on the side of the plaintiffs. It states that “any meetings of any public body shall be public meetings and all persons so desiring shall be permitted to attend.” But whether the legal challenge succeeds, they’ve done us a service by exposing this dark, seedy corner of our political system.
There’s a reason that lawmakers and their corporate sponsors don’t want the press or the public to see what goes on in ALEC meetings. Most people would be disgusted by the spectacle of lobbyists and lawmakers wining and dining in lavish resorts while they craft legislation that often causes harm to the most vulnerable, hardworking Arizonans.
Lawmakers introduce “model bills,” which other ALEC-affiliated lawmakers then push in other states. ALEC claims that about one-third of all state legislators in the country are members. Between 2010 and 2018, more than 600 of ALEC’s bills became law across the country. Inevitably, the harm done by laws birthed at secret ALEC meetings – from voter ID laws to Stand Your Ground laws to Right-to-Work laws – falls most heavily on working class people and communities of color.
Lawmakers of both parties purport to oppose “special interests” or “the establishment” or “elites.” But as long as we allow groups like ALEC such influence, this is just lip service. Likewise, both Democrats and Republicans lament the state of our democracy, for different reasons, but there’s no greater threat to our democracy than the corporate influence-peddling that takes place every day.
It’s time to shine a light on the secret meetings of corporate lobbyists and lawmakers. Better yet, we should make sure lawmaking takes place not in back rooms and private resorts but in the public square. As it stands, out-of-state corporate interests are getting their way because Arizonans don’t have a say.
Arizona State Representative-elect Analise Ortiz will serve the people of Maryvale and Glendale in Arizona’s 24th Legislative District. She is a former journalist with a background in criminal justice reform advocacy.