Copy, Paste, Legislate

Published — April 4, 2019

If corporations write a bill, should lawmakers have to tell you? Model bill critics say yes

This story was published in partnership with USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic. 


Full disclosure. 

That’s the best way to give the public a chance to learn who is writing legislation introduced by lawmakers across the country, according to those who criticize the practice.  

Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona said the public should know when lawmakers are advancing legislation written by outsiders. Her group has fought a school voucher program written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which creates model legislation for conservative politicians to introduce around the country.  

Penich-Thacker says lawmakers should be required to disclose when legislation they introduce comes from someone else.  

“No one is telling you you can’t write this bill,” she said. “No one is telling you you can’t try to work this bill through the system. But we are telling you you have to tell us where you got it. So if it is model legislation, somewhere in the notes of the bill it basically cites its sources, it says its origin.” 

In Wisconsin, Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor is taking a different approach. She wants groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to register as lobbyists so citizens will know when they play a role in developing legislation.  

“Our constituents deserve to know about ALEC’s activities, and those of any other organization that are advocating for these policies,” Taylor wrote in a memo to lawmakers urging them to sign onto her legislation.  

Her bill also would require both the groups and lawmakers to report when the groups cover travel expenses for legislators. The legislative exchange council often provides what it calls scholarships to lawmakers so they can attend its conferences and learn about legislation the group is developing.  

As it stands now, it’s easier in some states than others to learn who’s behind legislation.  

More than half of the states keep confidential the files that track the drafting of legislation, said Kae Warnock, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those files often include emails, notes or other documents that show who worked with lawmakers on legislation before it was introduced. B

“Even after a bill, resolution, or amendment has been introduced, information concerning who may have actually requested the legislation and what alternatives were considered and rejected during the drafting process remain confidential,” the Illinois Legislative Reference Bureau drafting manual says.

In other states, the public has more of an opportunity to discover the involvement of special interests in crafting bills because legislative drafting files are available to the public. 

“That’s very important when you want to know what your government is doing to you,” said Orville Seymer, field operations director of the conservative, Wisconsin-based Citizens for Responsible Government. “Every time they try to hide something, I get very suspicious.” 

In Wisconsin, public access to drafting files has shed light on the origins of bills. In 2014, one file showed business groups were involved in drafting legislation to make it harder to sue asbestos manufacturers.  

And in 2015, the drafting file for the state budget showed aides to then-Gov. Scott Walker asked to rewrite the University of Wisconsin System’s mission statement so that it no longer referenced improving people’s lives beyond the classroom. The drafting file undercut Walker’s claims that changes to the mission statement were included by mistake.   

Read more in State Politics

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Duncan McEwanDan MarayeJon Michael YeagerSherbroek Recent comment authors
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How do you stop this? A federal law mandating legislation source transparency? Or mandating that the full text of every proposed piece of legislation is published in full for a period of time before it is voted on to give citizens a chance to speak for or against it? Prevent the beneficiaries of any legislation in any one session from making political donations? Require sponsors of any bill to have to describe the bill from the floor to prove they know what’s in it?

Jon Michael Yeager
Jon Michael Yeager

Interesting. I explained,to Public Integrity, in great detail, a specific Washington State Lien Law, ‘Correction’, done in the early 90’s. It is of course, documented. A Federal Bank had financed a dairy processing company. It’s new borrower defaulted in under a year, despite the Processor having an 85 consecutive year presence in the State. The Bank sought protection from losses the new borrower would have laid upon it. The Bank, utilizing its own, “In house counsel” ( one lawyer) , wrote a ‘new and improved’ lien law, so that the bank could intercept checks that would have been paid to… Read more »

Dan Maraye
Dan Maraye

A critical analysis of World Bank and the IMF recommendations to several developing countries smell of the same weaknesses.

Duncan McEwan
Duncan McEwan

If an elected official has been in office for more than six years, they are on the take. Some group or another is paying them. And if you are concerned about the laws you should also be concerned about how the money is spent by government agencies. When a government agency needs outside help to properly conduct the business of the agency they are required to publish a Request For Proposal (RFP) in the Commerce Business Daily (CBD). The agency is also required to have an Acceptance Test Plan (ATP) to determine whether the work has been completed correctly. Frequently… Read more »