Copy, Paste, Legislate

Published — July 18, 2019

They copied bills from corporations. These lawmakers say that’s OK.

Legislators agreed to carry copycat bills handed to them by companies, lobbyists and special interests seeking to write states’ laws in bulk. 

Introduction

When state legislators introduce laws, it’s often not their work. The USA TODAY Network identified 10,000 times when lawmakers introduced a copycat bill handed to them by a company or lobbyist. 

As part of our two-year investigation into model legislation with the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity, we reached out to dozens of lawmakers who sponsored at least one fill-in-the-blank bill for a special interest group.

Reporters across the network interviewed 44 legislators who introduced or signed on to model bills. Some didn’t return our phone calls and emails. One “decided not to speak on the issue” after initially agreeing to an interview.

Most who did speak were upfront about where they got their inspiration. They knew the name of the organization that wrote the bill and had no qualms about copying it. Some suggested that their bills had been “tailored” to their state, though in most cases, language differences were minor.

“It’s rare that any of us are coming up with legislation that hasn’t been done before,” said Louisiana state Sen. Rick Ward, a Republican.

“We should not spend all of our time creating the wheel,” said New York state Sen. James Sanders, a Democrat. “I prefer to perfect it.”

Some lawmakers were less sure about the origin of the bills they sponsored. A quarter of the elected officials we talked to said they couldn’t recall where the idea came from. Several more said they signed on as sponsors to bills they didn’t realize had been written by a special interest group.

It’s common for the copied legislation to fail, as it is for all bills. Of the model bills identified by the USA TODAY Network, slightly more than 20% became state law.

Not independent? Not a problem

Lawmakers said it’s business-as-usual to stay in close contact with special interests. Some take pride in collaborating with such organizations on legislation.

The system works in both directions. Rhode Island Rep. Shelby Maldonado, a Democrat, said she was approached by the American Heart Association with a model. California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican, said she had a specific goal and – by searching online or reaching out to think tanks – chose a model bill to introduce.

States’ rights, to a certain point

One idea that came up repeatedly in interviews was the need for states to have laws that mimic one another. For example, one model made it easier for doctors to do work in multiple states. That works only if multiple states pass similar laws.

“When you look at the ability for health care professionals to move between those states without the undue burden of having to pay for increasingly expensive censure, the compact starts to make sense,” said Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, a Republican.

In other cases, the need for copycat legislation was less clear. That didn’t keep lawmakers from arguing for uniformity in a law from state to state, even those who frequently argue passionately for states’ rights over centralized government.

The new normal?

Some lawmakers said the effectiveness of model legislation depends on the quality of the organization that created it – though which organizations legislators considered trustworthy largely was dictated by their political party affiliation.

Model bills make more sense than crafting their own legislation, they said, because corporations and special interests have the time to study the impact of a proposed bill. Why waste time writing bills from scratch, they asked, when you can copy and paste?

Laws without a trace

Interest groups are quick to acknowledge how many bills they helped craft in any given legislative session. But a few legislators told us they weren’t quite sure who wrote the bills they promoted.

Part of that is process. Relying on advisers and staff members, legislators aren’t always intimately involved in the lawmaking process. For example, Massachusetts state Rep. Kay Khan initially said she and a colleague wrote a bill that would add a tiered tax structure to sugary drinks. After being pushed on the issue by a reporter, the Democrat from Newton spoke briefly with an aide.

Then her story changed.

“When I first filed it, I think it’s probably different than what it is now,” she said. “They (the American Heart Association) apparently have been in the background helping us with the legislation.”

Contributing: Geoff Pender, Jon Campbell, Gregory Holman, Greg Hilburn, Joseph Hong, Ben Botkin, Nicholas Pugliese, Natalie Allison, Luke Ramseth

Read more in State Politics

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I smell James Buchanan, ALEC and the Koch Bros all over these ‘bills.’