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7 House members in San Diego for conservative group ALEC

Conservative legislators from around the country are flocking to San Diego this week for an annual gathering focused on states’ rights, shrinking government and free-market policies.

Among the attendees at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly called ALEC, are seven members of the Florida House.

Republican Reps. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Colleen Burton of Lakeland, Neil Combee of Polk County, Mike Hill of Pensacola, Larry Metz of Yalaha, Kathleen Petersof South Pasadena and John Wood of Winter Haven are all attending the conference, according to Wood’s office. Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, was also authorized by the House to attend but is not in California for the event.

No members of the Senate are confirmed to be attending the conference, including Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who serves as ALEC’s state co-chair in Florida alongside Wood.

Representatives attending the conference have been given permission by the Speaker’s office to use their taxpayer-funded member accounts for travel expenses. However, it’s not clear whether any of them will choose to do so.

Wood said he hasn’t yet decided if he’ll pay for his travels with taxpayer dollars or leftover campaign funds. In past years, he’s used campaign contributions.

“It’s just a great policy exchange on a number of different issues that state legislators are facing across our nation,” said Wood. “There’s no real particular agenda other than the mission of ALEC is limited government, free markets and federalism. Those are my principles, and those are principles that we hope to apply to good public policy decisions.”

The ALEC conference has been criticized, though, as a chance for corporate interest groups to influence state legislators behind closed doors. The national group’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council includes representatives from AT&T, State Farm and Exxon Mobil, among other groups.

“At ALEC’s meeting, elected politicians and corporate representatives will meet behind closed doors to craft model bills, which often benefit the corporations’ bottom line,” wrote Peter Butzin of Common Cause, a liberal group, in a statement released this week.

In addition to hearing from conservative leaders — including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all candidates for president — ALEC task forces will discuss key policy agendas. Health care and energy issues will be among the most interesting and important, said Wood.

This will be ALEC’s first meeting since the Florida House decided not to expand health coverage for Floridians using private insurers and federal Medicaid dollars. And it’s the first since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a critical provision of the Affordable Care Act in June.

“ALEC has been pretty consistently against Medicaid expansion as a way to provide better health outcomes to our population, so I think the position we’ve taken in the Florida House is consistent with their thinking,” Wood said.