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. 

Introduction

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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