By David Ingram and John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become the latest big-name financial supporter to back away from a group that pushes conservative and corporate priorities in U.S. state capitals.
The foundation said it would not award another grant to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the face of criticism of the council's involvement in voting laws and in "stand your ground" gun laws such as one under scrutiny in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida.
"At this point, we've decided that it's not the right environment to continue working with them," Gates Foundation spokesman Chris Williams told Reuters on Tuesday.
The split will take effect once the Gates Foundation pays the balance of a $376,000 education grant that it awarded to the conservative group last year, Williams said.
The foundation joins at least three other corporations that have said since January that they would cut their ties to ALEC.
ColorOfChange, a political group that advocates for black Americans, has led a public campaign to persuade corporations to distance themselves from ALEC. ColorOfChange's executive director is Rashad Robinson, who previously worked for a voting-rights group and a gay-rights group.
ColorOfChange and its allies have said they are pressuring other companies to do the same. Their targets include AT&T, which has declined to comment.
Some corporations that are ALEC members have said they stood by ALEC's work in policy areas that are important to their businesses and that are unrelated to guns or voting laws.
Sprint Nextel Corp, for example, said on Monday that its participation is limited to discussions about telecommunications policy. It has not been involved in "any other issues before the council," spokesman John Taylor said.
ALEC does not release membership numbers, but its website lists 21 companies with representatives on its "private enterprise board." A public tax form says ALEC had $7.2 million in revenue in 2010.
Williams said no one issue prompted the Gates Foundation's decision, but "the broader criticisms of ALEC have certainly contributed to our thinking about this."
The foundation was not a dues-paying member of ALEC, but Williams said it will "continue to work with partners across the political spectrum."
The Gates Foundation, established by Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, counts education among its priorities. It said its grant of $376,000 to ALEC was intended to "educate and engage" its membership on education budgeting and on teacher effectiveness.
It was a one-time grant that paid for workshops at ALEC events, Williams said. The foundation would not attempt to cancel the remainder of the grant, he said, adding: "A grant is a contract, and they have met their objectives and milestones."
The foundation paid out $2.6 billion in worldwide grants in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available.
News of the foundation's decision to cut off ALEC was reported earlier by Roll Call, a newspaper in Washington.
ALEC did not respond to a request for comment on the foundation's decision, but spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss said in an interview on April 5 that the group's membership increased more than 20 percent during the past year or two.
ALEC, a favorite group of conservative Republicans, is a resource for state lawmakers who believe in "free markets, limited government and federalism," Buss said.
Lawmakers and the corporate representatives who make up ALEC's committees do not always agree on policy, she said.
Corporate America is facing increased scrutiny from consumers and shareholder activists over lobbying and political spending.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed on February 26. The suspect has not been charged and a Florida law allows him increased leeway to claim self defense. ALEC has helped to spread the law to other states.
Civil rights advocates have said they are considering economic boycotts of companies that support so called "stand your ground" laws that permit civilians to carry and use weapons in cases of self defense. Corporate backers of ALEC were also singled out last year for the group's support of state laws requiring that voters show identification when they vote. ColorOfChange says the laws unfairly burden racial minorities and the poor.
Three companies that have said since January they are cutting their ties with ALEC are the Coca-Cola Co, Kraft Foods Inc and PepsiCo Inc. A fourth company, Intuit Inc, said it left ALEC near the end of 2011 but declined to comment further.
(Additional reporting by Sinead Carew, Anil D'Silva, Martinne Geller and Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)