About this report
This story was produced as part of a collaboration between USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity. More than 30 reporters across the country were involved in the two-year investigation, which identified copycat bills in every state. The team used a unique data-analysis engine built on hundreds of cloud computers to compare millions of words of legislation provided by LegiScan.
A two-year investigation by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity reveals for the first time the extent to which special interests have infiltrated state legislatures using model legislation.
USA TODAY and the Republic found at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide in the past eight years, and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.
The investigation examined nearly 1 million bills in all 50 states and Congress using a computer algorithm developed to detect similarities in language. That search – powered by the equivalent of 150 computers that ran nonstop for months – compared known model legislation with bills introduced by lawmakers.
The phenomenon of copycat legislation is far larger. In a separate analysis, the Center for Public Integrity identified tens of thousands of bills with identical phrases, then traced the origins of that language in dozens of those bills across the country.
Model bills passed into law have made it harder for injured consumers to sue corporations. They’ve called for taxes on sugar-laden drinks. They’ve limited access to abortion and restricted the rights of protesters.
In all, these copycat bills amount to the nation’s largest, unreported special-interest campaign, driving agendas in every statehouse and touching nearly every area of public policy.
The investigation reveals that fill-in-the-blank bills have in some states supplanted the traditional approach of writing legislation from scratch. They have become so intertwined with the lawmaking process that the nation’s top sponsor of copycat legislation, a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, claimed to have signed on to 72 such bills without knowing or questioning their origin.
For lawmakers, copying model legislation is an easy way to get fully formed bills to put their names on, while building relationships with lobbyists and other potential campaign donors.
For special interests seeking to stay under the radar, model legislation also offers distinct advantages. Copycat bills don’t appear on expense reports, or campaign finance forms. They don’t require someone to register as a lobbyist or sign in at committee hearings. But once injected into the lawmaking process, they can go viral, spreading state to state, executing an agenda to the letter.
USA TODAY’s investigation found:
- Models are drafted with deceptive titles and descriptions to disguise their true intent. The Asbestos Transparency Act didn’t help people exposed to asbestos. It was written by corporations who wanted to make it harder for victims to recoup money. The “HOPE Act,” introduced in nine states, was written by a conservative advocacy group to make it more difficult for people to get food stamps.
- Special interests sometimes work to create the illusion of expert endorsements, public consensus or grassroots support. One man testified as an expert in 13 states to support a bill that makes it more difficult to sue for asbestos exposure. In several states, lawmakers weren’t told that he was a member of the organization that wrote the model legislation on behalf of the asbestos industry, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
- Copied bills have been used to override the will of local voters and their elected leaders. Cities and counties have raised their minimum wage, banned plastics bags and destroyed seized guns, only to have industry groups that oppose such measures make them illegal with model bills passed in state legislatures. Among them: Airbnb has supported the conservative Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, which pushed model bills to strike down local laws limiting short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods in four states.
- Industry groups have had extraordinary success pushing copycat bills that benefit themselves. More than 4,000 such measures were introduced during the period analyzed by USA TODAY/Arizona Republic. One that passed in Wisconsin limited pain-and-suffering compensation for injured nursing-home residents, restricting payouts to lost wages, which the elderly residents don’t have.
“This work proves what many people have suspected, which is just how much of the democratic process has been outsourced to special interests,” said Lisa Graves, co-director of Documented, which probes corporate manipulation of public policy. “It is both astonishing and disappointing to see how widespread … it is. Good lord, it’s an amazing thing to see.”
The impact of model legislation is undoubtedly larger than the 10,000 copied bills identified by USA TODAY/Arizona Republic.
Because the investigation relied on matching identical text, it flagged instances where legislators copied model legislation nearly verbatim, but it did not detect bills that adapted an idea without using the same language.
Sherri Greenberg, who spent 10 years in the Texas Legislature and is now the Max Sherman Chair in State and Local Government at the University of Texas at Austin, said bills used to spring from lawmakers’ experiences, constituents, or lobbyists representing long-established industries. Model legislation has flourished as gridlock in Congress forced special interest groups to look to the states to get things done, she said.
Not all model legislation is driven by special interests or designed to make someone money. Some bills were written to require sex offenders to register with law enforcement, while others have made it easier for members of the military to vote or increased penalties for human trafficking.
Charles Siler, a former external relations manager for the Goldwater Institute, which has pushed copycat bills nationwide, said it’s a fast way to spread ideas because with little modification lawmakers can adapt it to their state.
“It’s not inherently bad, one way or the other,” said Siler, who now works for a political action committee. “It depends on the idea and the people pushing it. Definitely people use model legislation to push bad ideas around.”
Allison Anderman, managing attorney at the pro-gun-control Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said model bills are simply how the system works now.
“This is how all laws are written,” she said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a law where a legislator sits in a chamber until a light bulb goes off with a new policy.”
Bills promise to protect the public. They actually bolster the corporate bottom line.
The Asbestos Transparency Act sounds like the kind of boring, good-government policy voters expect their representatives to hammer out on their behalf to safeguard public health.
Better transparency was one reason Colorado state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg said he introduced the bill in 2017, and again last year, at the urging of a tort reform group called the Colorado Civil Justice League and backed by insurance companies, including Nationwide Insurance.
“Whenever you add transparency to the mix, it helps all consumers,” said Sonnenberg, a Republican.
But the bill had nothing to do with requiring companies to disclose to consumers what products contained asbestos or informing those who had been exposed to the cancer-causing mineral how to get help.
It, in effect, cast corporations as victims of litigation filed by people harmed by asbestos. The model bill requires people battling the asbestos-triggered disease mesothelioma to seek money from an asbestos trust, set up to compensate victims, before they can sue a company whose product might have caused their cancer.
That process can take months or even a year.
Many mesothelioma victims die within a year their diagnosis. Their families can still sue on their behalf, but for far less money.
“I can tell you for a fact that families don’t have time for all these hoops they want you to jump through,” said Chris Winokur, whose husband Bob was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015 and died nine months later. “They’re trying to make it more difficult to sue.”
Bob Winokur, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and served as mayor of Fort Collins, Colorado, never pinpointed where he came in contact with asbestos. And he never filed a claim to help pay his medical bills. The disease progressed too rapidly to allow it, even without the additional requirements proposed by the model bill, Chris Winokur said.
The model legislation was the work of corporations seeking to limit their exposure to billions of dollars in litigation associated with asbestos. Insurance companies Nationwide, AIG, Travelers, Hartford and CNA Financial Corp. together hold more than half the nation’s asbestos claim exposure totaling over $870 million.
USA TODAY/Arizona Republic found the Asbestos Transparency Act, a product of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-supported model bill factory, has been introduced in at least 32 states since 2012. It became law in 12 states.
Sonnenberg, the lawmaker who introduced it in Colorado, said he didn’t write the bill and relied on “my experts” to explain it during a February 2017 hearing.
One of those experts was Mark Behrens, who logs thousands of miles a year testifying before lawmakers about ALEC’s model asbestos legislation. He has done so in at least 13 states, where he was billed as an objective authority.
Behrens is an attorney with Shook, Hardy and Bacon, which represents companies in complex civil litigation. He is a co-chairman of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force and is a paid consultant for the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, an arm of the nation’s largest business lobby, which has the stated goal of reducing litigation.
During the hearing, Behrens testified: “The only thing the legislation does is accelerate the timing of when the trust claim is filed. It’s not putting any new burdens on plaintiffs.”
A Democratic legislator pressed Behrens on why the 26-page bill needed technical language that could confuse victims trying to be compensated. She called it, “a gift to defendants,” before voting against it.
Sonnenberg told USA TODAY he didn’t know Behrens worked for the Chamber of Commerce when he called him to testify. “I just knew they were experts and they indeed understood the legal issues and process much better than I,” he wrote in an email.
Behrens said the Asbestos Transparency Act seeks to hold wrongdoers accountable, while exonerating innocent companies paying for harm they didn’t cause.
“These companies don’t get a vote; all we can do is make our case,” Behrens told USA TODAY. “I don’t care who I’m there for, I still have to be credible and honest.”
Graves said special interests have “so-called experts who aren’t neutral. They go around the country and testify about those bills as if they’re good for that state or even as if they’re products of that state.”
Colorado lawmakers rejected the Asbestos Transparency Act in 2017 and 2018, and Sonnenberg said he doesn’t plan to introduce it this year.
“It would be wise,” he said, “for someone with a better understanding of these types of issues to carry the bill in the future.”
Bill Meierling, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of ALEC, said supporters of the asbestos model believed it did create more transparency, “but it’s up to each individual state to choose how they would name” the bill when they copy ALEC’s model.
USA TODAY found more than 4,000 bills benefiting industry were introduced nationwide during the eight years it reviewed. More than 80 of those bills limit the public’s ability to sue corporations, including limiting class-action lawsuits, a plaintiff’s ability to offer expert testimony, and cap punitive damages for corporate wrongdoing.
“No citizens are saying, ‘Hey, can you make it harder to sue if … low-paid (nursing home) orderlies happened to kill or injure my parents,’ ” Graves said. “That’s not a thing citizens are clamoring for. But you know who is? The nursing home industry, and big business in general.”
Many of the bills USA TODAY found were copied from models written by special interests were couched in similarly unremarkable or technical language that obscured their impact. Bans on raising the local minimum wage were dubbed “uniform minimum wage” laws. Changes to civil court rules to shield companies from lawsuits were described as ”congruity” or reforms to make laws consistent. Repealing business regulations was disguised under the term “rescission.”
Politicians get a shortcut to success. Special interests get their agendas turned into law.
A moderate Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs shows how copycat bills in some states set the legislative agenda.
Rep. Thomas Murt has sponsored more model legislation than any other state lawmaker in the nation, according to USA TODAY‘s database.
Murt, whose biggest campaign donors include the Pennsylvania Republican Party and labor unions, said he was stunned to learn that he was listed as a sponsor on 72 bills substantially copied from model legislation from 2010 to late 2018.
Pennsylvania House members solicit co-sponsors by circulating short memos summarizing a bill without including its actual language or who wrote it.
“I had no way of knowing unless it’s put in the … memo,” Murt said of the bills he helped sponsor.
Murt’s situation highlights how critical bill titles and summaries are – especially when it comes to copycat legislation – because lawmakers, even sponsors, often don’t read bills.
Had Murt probed further, he would have seen the bills he signed onto came from ALEC, its liberal counterpart ALICE, the State Innovation Exchange, Council of State Governments, Goldwater Institute and other groups that specialize in writing copycat bills.
They dealt with cities’ ability to take action against blighted properties, prohibitions on businesses banning guns in employees’ vehicles, and a call for the U.S. president to be elected by popular vote, among many others.
USA TODAY provided Murt with a list of all 72 bills, 13 of which became law, and asked questions about his support for them. He was the primary sponsor of only one: a ban on smoking in workplaces written by the liberal State Innovation Exchange.
Murt said he would reconsider his support for two of the bills that were copied from ALEC, after learning more about their impact. One was a call for a constitutional convention to curb federal spending, backed by the controversial Koch brothers conservative political network. The other was a bill protecting Crown Cork & Seal from asbestos liability.
“I would be suspect of such a proposal,” Murt said of the constitutional convention model. “But bear in mind that when that co-sponsor memo was circulated, I’m sure it never mentioned the Koch brothers,/ because for some people that would have been a show-stopper.”
Murt also said he would never support limiting asbestos victims’ ability to sue.
USA TODAY interviewed more than 50 sponsors of model legislation nationwide. Half said they knew they had sponsored model legislation. But 20 legislators said they didn’t know the source of their bill or claimed they wrote at least part of the bill.
Five insisted the bill was their own work, even though the wording of each included multiple passages that matched model legislation nearly verbatim. Almost all of the sponsors defended the practice of copying model legislation or had no opinion of it.
In Michigan, Republican state Sen. Joe Haveman said he worked with a lobbyist from a Lansing law firm to draft his state’s version of the law aimed at shielding Crown Cork & Seal from asbestos liability stemming from a corporate merger in the 1960s. The law firm, Clark Hill, has donated $1,800 to his campaigns since 2012, according to state records.
Haveman said he had no issues with relying on model bills and said even though Crown Cork & Seal is not a Michigan company, he said he saw it as a “fairness issue.” He said he was approached by a lobbyist and agreed with the bill when he saw a draft.
“It really had nothing to do with my passion for anything. They had to do this in all 50 states,” Haveman said. “Somebody targeted me, and I had to do it.”
It’s not just legislators circulating copycat bills. In Pennsylvania, the nonpartisan service that drafts all bills for the state Assembly – the Legislative Reference Bureau – frequently copies directly from model legislation, said director Vincent DeLiberato. But the legislator ultimately decides whether to use it, he said.
In Wisconsin, the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal staff is similarly tasked with converting lawmakers’ ideas into bills. A March 1, 2017, email to that staff from the office of Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos requested that an attached document be “drafted as stated.”
The document contained the Campus Free Speech Act, which prevents universities from blocking controversial speakers and imposes penalties on students, including expulsion, for disrupting such events. The measure, written by the Goldwater Institute, is a reaction to liberal protesters at Middlebury College, UC-Berkeley, University of Florida and other campuses who have disrupted speeches by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and white supremacist Richard Spencer, among others.
Vos did not respond to questions about the origin of his bill, which was copied nearly verbatim from Goldwater’s model. It didn’t pass, but the ideas were incorporated in new university rules adopted by Wisconsin.
USA TODAY’s algorithm found the same model was introduced in 13 states, becoming law in Arizona and North Carolina. A similar version passed in Colorado.
The relationship between groups writing model legislation and the lawmakers introducing them is a marriage of convenience, experts said.
Special interests give lawmakers fully conceived bills they can put their names on and take credit for. And those special interests can become dependable donors to their campaigns.
Conservative groups like ALEC nurture those relationships at annual conferences where lawmakers and corporate lobbyists discuss policy and mingle over meals and drinks paid for by corporate sponsors.
This arrangement is particularly appealing to new lawmakers, said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor at Columbia University who has studied the influence of ALEC and other conservative groups.
His research showed less-experienced lawmakers are more likely to use copycat legislation.
They “know they are conservative, they know they are pro-business, but … they don’t really know what it means to translate that into different bills,” he said. “These networks are able to fill in what it means to be a conservative Republican who wants to support business.”
Meierling, ALEC’s chief marketing officer, said there are checks and balances on corporate influence within the organization “just like our government structure.”
Companies join ALEC because they want feedback and insight from a variety of legislators, he said.
“Sure they (companies) are going to share their perspective, but a legislator is there to represent their constituents and if they don’t they’ll be held accountable at the ballot box,” Meierling said. “ALEC … has proven it’s an asset to society.”
Progressive groups, meanwhile, have failed to replicate conservatives’ success because they’ve not invested in facilitating the relationships between lawmakers and special interests, Hertel-Fernandez said.
“What ALEC does is more than provide the model bills: They provide relationships. They approach you when you are first elected and build these enduring social connections with you at recurring events that happen every year,” he said. “You really need that social connection in addition to the model-bill resources that you’re getting, the research help.”
Bills sound like they’re protecting people from a problem. They’re actually for promotion, and persuading people to open their wallets.
“Countless American lives will be saved. … I don’t want to say thousands because I think it’s going to be much more – hundreds of thousands,” President Donald Trump said at a signing ceremony for the national “Right to Try” bill in May 2018. “It is such a great name. From the first day I loved it. It’s so perfect: Right. To. Try.”
With the stroke of a pen, Trump made a bill that had circulated in statehouses for four years the most successful copycat bill in history. Not only did it pass in 41 states, it also had conquered Congress.
The version passed by Congress allows terminally ill individuals a right to try experimental medications that have not been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The bill’s title left the public with the impression it was spurred by a groundswell of patients demanding lifesaving treatment.
Instead, it was a focus group-tested name, coined by a consultant to a for-profit corporation.
That corporation, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a chain focused on alternative cancer treatments, wanted access to experimental drugs to boost business.
Right to Try illustrates another finding of USA TODAY’s investigation: Some copycat bills amount to little more than marketing and posturing, with organizations behind them highlighting a perceived problem and then offering a solution with little or no measurable impact.
The point is seemingly to score political points, draw attention to the organization behind the model, and raise funds off the effort.
Former Goldwater President Darcy Olsen parlayed this campaign into the book “Right to Try.” In it, she said Cancer Treatment Centers of America approached Goldwater for help addressing a “national medical emergency”: the government blocking terminally ill patients from receiving potential lifesaving treatments.
When asked, Goldwater could not produce any of those patients.
Chuck Warren, corporate consultant to Cancer Treatment Centers of America, said he came up with the bill’s name.
Goldwater and CTCA paid for focus groups to make sure the name struck the right chord. “It was always our favorite name and it was the name that resonated the most with focus groups,” Warren said.
While the marketing was cutting edge, its policy largely had been implemented decades earlier.
Alison Bateman-House, an assistant professor of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Health, said Right to Try is “an effort to address a problem that did not actually exist.” Patients have been able to access experimental drugs since the 1970s, she said.
Through the FDA’s compassionate-use program, about 1,000 patients a year have gained access to non-approved drugs in recent years. The FDA approves more than 90 percent of those requests, often within days and, in emergencies, sometimes more quickly.
“The Goldwater Institute was taking advantage of a very heart-rending and sympathetic issue to push for their pet policy, which is basically to roll back regulations,” Bateman-House said. “They did pick a winner of a name. … Unfortunately, it’s a lie.”
It’s unclear how many people have received experimental drugs through Right to Try. Bateman-House said she’s heard of two. Goldwater points to those same two patients, and a Texas doctor who ran a trial involving 200 patients.
Goldwater CEO Victor Riches said those were only the individuals who informed his organization about their success using the law.
Riches said Goldwater crafts legislation it sees a need for in Arizona, where it’s based. It then considers the “exportability” of its model legislation to other states, he said.
Goldwater’s strategy for Right to Try was to get it passed in as many states as possible to pressure Congress to enact a version, Riches said.
“When you are in 41 states and you’ve had literally thousands of legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, it is hard for the federal government not to take notice,” he said.
It’s even harder to pin down what problem the American Laws for American Courts bill is solving.
The model bill, which was introduced in legislatures 53 times during the past eight years, mandates judges’ rulings be void if based on a foreign law or doctrine that violates the rights granted to U.S. citizens under the Constitution or state law.
Even backers struggle to identify situations where this has occurred.
“This is a solution looking for a problem,” said Ahmed Abdelnaby, an engineer who testified against the bill last year at the Idaho Legislature because he felt it fomented hate against his Muslim faith.
While proponents are unable to cite court cases where U.S. law has been supplanted by Sharia or some other doctrine, those lobbying for it collected about $206 million in donations between 2008 and 2013, according to a study released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender.
“They wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t making a buck,” said Robert McCaw, government relations director for CAIR.
Minnesota state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who co-sponsored similar legislation in 2016, said some people fear Sharia law will be applied in the U.S., but he does not.
Drazkowski also pushed a bill in 2011 to declare English as the official language of Minnesota and prohibit conducting routine business in foreign languages, including driver’s license exams. The bill was strikingly similar to model legislation by a group called ProEnglish, which calls itself the “nation’s leading advocate for official English.”
The Saint Paul Pioneer Press editorialized that Drazkowski was using it to ensure his reelection by “pandering to the mostly conservative and card-carrying residents of … the paranoid states of America.”
Drazkowski said he is aware of ProEnglish but couldn’t remember where he got the language for his English-only bill.
“The use of these model bills is not the end of the world,” he said, noting that immigrants are more successful when they learn English. “The idea that one organization or group is somehow controlling legislation or legislators or states, that’s a fallacy.”
Voters say they want one thing. Special interests get lawmakers to do the opposite.
For Susan Edwards, it seemed like a godsend when Arizona lawmakers introduced a bill to create a new kind of school voucher for students with disabilities.
With the money – funded by dollars taken from a recipient’s local district school – the mother of two children on the autism spectrum could send her kids to a private school where they would receive specialized attention they wouldn’t get elsewhere.
With a sympathetic group of students as the face of the legislation, Democrats and Republicans rallied behind the 2011 bill which borrowed language from the Goldwater Institute, ALEC, and American Federation for Children, the pro-school choice group founded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Edwards’ opinion of the program, however, changed drastically as legislators later introduced bill after bill to give vouchers to more students, culminating in lawmakers approving them for all students.
None of those bills, however, guaranteed Edwards’ sons and others with disabilities could keep their vouchers as more students were added. She didn’t know it at the time, but lawmakers were drawing their ideas from model legislation.
Edwards said she realized in retrospect that students with disabilities were used as a Trojan horse to put on the legislative agenda a fringe idea that was part of a much bigger campaign. In the years that followed, 19 other states debated 93 nearly identical proposals based on model legislation. They became law in Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee.
“Every single, little expansion, if you look at who’s behind it, it is the people that want to get that door kicked open for private religious education,” Edwards said. ”All we (families with disabled students) are was the way for them to crack open the door.”
Riches, Goldwater’s CEO, said starting the ESA program with a small group of students and expanding it was the best approach.
“When you are talking about a big idea, a new idea, usually the best way of approaching it is to wade into it and demonstrate it can work on a smaller level and then grow it from there,” Riches said.
The groups behind Arizona’s move toward universal vouchers, however, were shown in indisputable terms that the public opposed their ideas.
On Election Day 2018, Arizona voters rejected universal vouchers by a 65-35 margin.
It was only the most recent example of model legislation that didn’t reflect the will of voters, USA TODAY/Arizona Republic found.
Model-legislation factories have increasingly proposed what are known as “preemption” bills. These laws, in effect, allow state legislators to dictate to city councils and county governing boards what they can and cannot do within their jurisdiction—including preventing them from raising the minimum wage, banning plastic grocery bags, and destroying guns.
Kansas stopped local efforts to require restaurants to list calories on their menus.
Arizona and New Hampshire prevented local regulations on home rentals. Airbnb has lobbied against home-sharing restrictions, often with the Goldwater Institute’s assistance.
One model pushed by ALEC and the Goldwater Institute prohibits local jurisdictions from creating occupational licensing requirements. It reflects conservatives’ and libertarians’ belief that job licensing stifles competition and hurts the economy, and should only be required when it involves health and safety.
Drazkowski, the Minnesota representative, said he introduced such a bill “so you don’t have a patchwork kind of discombobulated mess of different ordinances from one community to the next.”
But Riches said his group stopped promoting similar model legislation because of the public outcry.
“We found very quickly that you bring people out of the woodwork when you try to get rid of occupational licenses,” he said. “What I would refer to as the status-quo crowd.”
Goldwater returned with another that allows anyone who’s been harmed by occupational regulation to sue for damages, including harm that occurred before the law was enacted.
It was introduced in at least five states and passed in Arizona. But Riches acknowledged no one has used it to file suit, and the only beneficiary he can point to is a person with ties to the administration of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a vocal supporter of occupational licensing restrictions.
Because preemption bills have almost exclusively been advanced by Republicans, many of whom rail against the excessive mandates of Washington, D.C., critics see such legislation as the height of hypocrisy.
“There’s real … hypocrisy in many of these so-called conservative legislators trying to rip away local control when they preached for years that a government that’s closest to you … is most responsive to you,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, who campaigned to overturn Arizona’s school-voucher expansion with a public vote.
Penich-Thacker saw a similar disregard for the will of voters when within hours of Arizonans’ vote to overturn universal school vouchers, the Goldwater Institute and American Federation Children declared they would continue to feed their model proposals to state lawmakers.
Bills to modify Arizona’s voucher program were soon introduced. One bore a striking resemblance to model legislation from the Heartland Institute, granting vouchers to any parent who feels their child is unsafe or being bullied at school.