Coca-Cola has cut ties with a conservative Washington group accused of supporting voter suppression -- one with strong connections in Georgia's Legislature -- following an online petition and phone protests from activists.
The Atlanta-based beverage giant said Thursday it discontinued its membership with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which describes itself as a non-partisan organization advancing “the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty."
"Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business," Coke spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante said.
Ciarlante said the company would not disclose its financial support of ALEC but said it was restricted to yearly dues. She said it had been a member for approximately 10 years. The company had received some phone calls protesting its relationship with ALEC, she said, but declined to comment on the decision beyond the company's statement.
Coke's rival Pepsi also declined to renew its ALEC membership when it expired at the end of 2011, spokeswoman Heather Gleason said. The company's 10-year membership focused exclusively on tax issues related to the beverage industry, she said.
ColorOfChange.org, which describes itself as a the largest African-American online civil rights organization, said it is pressuring companies such Coke to drop their ALEC support. At issue is support they say ALEC has given in crafting legislative language that would limit voter identification to driver's licensing and for helping to establish "Stand Your Ground" laws like the one used in the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, said ColorOfChange Executive director Rashad Robinson
ALEC officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
ALEC is well known in state capitals, including Georgia’s Gold Dome. Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, is ALEC’s national treasurer and he and Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Woodstock, are ALEC’s Georgia’s co-chairmen. Efforts to reach Rogers were unsuccessful.
Since 2006, the group has contributed more than $9,000 to eight state lawmakers, all Republicans, according to campaign finance reports. In 2011, lobbyists spent more than $4,000 on meals and other gifts for Georgia lawmakers at ALEC conferences. Only one Democrat, Rep. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, is listed in disclosure reports as having attended.
But the group’s influence is perhaps greatest when it comes to legislation. ALEC produces “model” legislation that lawmakers around the country can access and introduce in their statehouses.
In Georgia, for example, lawmakers this year passed a bill that would allow certain businesses to declare workers as “independent contractors” or franchisees. Critics say it allows companies to strip workers of employee protections. ALEC has been touted as an ally to the bill's supporters.
Other Georgia bills with ALEC ties include one that put new restrictions on scrap-metal recycling as well as the major revamping of state criminal sentencing laws.
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