Legislative group turns focus amid Martin backlash

OLYMPIA, Wash. —

A conservative organization that helped spread a Florida law that recently gained national attention after the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin said Tuesday that it was abandoning the task force that championed the measure.

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s move comes as the group has been criticized for the “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force rather than retreat when they feel threatened.

The group said it wants to refocus resources away from its public safety panel in order to concentrate on economic issues.

“We believe we must concentrate on initiatives that spur competitiveness and innovation and put more Americans back to work,” the group’s national chairman, Indiana Rep. David Frizzell, said in a prepared statement.

Liberal advocacy groups who have long targeted ALEC cheered the decision, viewing it, in part, as a victory for their campaign to get corporations and other groups to drop their support for the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

In recent weeks, several major companies, including Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald’s Corp., dropped their financial support.

The practical effect of ALEC’s announcement may be small. The group has already had plenty of success exporting the Florida law in recent years, and similar statutes now exist in two dozen other states.

“They’ve already created a lot of damage, and this step is not going to undo that damage,” said Lisa Graves, a leader at the Center for Media and Democracy who has been targeting ALEC over the past year.

Graves said the announcement was unexpected but likely a public relations move.

The advocacy groups have criticized ALEC because it enables private companies to get undue access to state lawmakers and plays a questionable role in the development of legislation. Graves said she still has concerns about ALEC’s policy views on issues ranging from climate change to tort reform.

Advocacy groups have also been criticizing ALEC for helping develop new state voter ID laws that Democrats and minority groups believe will suppress some voters.

ALEC said Tuesday it was also getting rid of its task force on elections.

Along with the major companies who help fund ALEC, the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation has been forced in recent weeks to defend a $376,000 grant to the group.

Chris Williams, a spokesman for the foundation, said they sought to engage policymakers across the political spectrum but don’t plan to give another ALEC grant in the future. That decision was made in part because of the outrage linked to the Martin case, Williams said.

ALEC said it did not back the Florida law but did use it to develop model legislation for other states. The group said it is designed to prevent people who are trying to defend themselves from serious danger.

George Zimmerman, who was charged last week with second-degree murder in Martin’s death, maintains that he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him.

His attorney plans to cite the law, which is part of the reason why authorities were reluctant to charge Zimmerman initially.

Opponents of the law fear that the statutes lead to unnecessary deaths caused by trigger-happy people who feel they are in danger. Prosecutors and police have generally opposed the laws as confusing and prone to abuse by criminals.

Gun rights are not a primary focus of ALEC’s activities, as the group has task forces assessing issues ranging from the regulation of cable television to how states hire attorneys.

Much of that development takes place within task forces that put lawmakers and private sector interests at the same table. They meet at annual meetings and other conferences to hash out model legislation that lawmakers can take back to their home states.

ALEC largely draws Republicans and other conservative legislators.

Bob Williams, a former Washington state lawmaker who has participated in ALEC since 1978, said the group has been particularly successful in driving government transparency reforms – such as putting budgets online and giving the public a chance to review the documents before they are passed.

Williams, who works mostly on tax and fiscal policy for ALEC, said conservative think tanks have more sway in the process than companies who may also raise concerns or provide input.

“I haven’t seen the corporate interests drive the tax and fiscal agenda at all,” he said.

Baker can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/mikebakerap