Stop shadowy copycat laws by requiring attribution

Published 5:42 pm Friday, April 5, 2019

Who writes our laws? You could be forgiven for thinking lawmakers write them, given that it’s in their job description — and that we call them lawmakers.

In fact, there are thousands of pieces of legislation passed in recent years that were crafted by special interests and corporations and then passed with hardly any modification by our supposed lawmakers.

USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity published the results of a two-year investigation this week, through which they found more than 10,000 examples of “model legislation” introduced in state houses across the nation, including many examples in Kentucky. More than 2,100 of these copy-pasted bills were passed into law.

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The problem isn’t that the language for new laws is being drafted by people other than legislators. There’s no way that local lawmakers could ever have the experience and knowledge necessary to write specific laws on all of the different subjects they must address.

The problem is that these model pieces of legislation get passed without the public ever knowing who really wrote them, and without serious scrutiny or modification from anyone with a different perspective.

“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,” according to the USA Today report. “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.”

Model legislation has often been used by special interest groups to “override the will of local voters” and reverse grassroots decisions with state-level legislation.

USA Today found 4,301 examples of model legislation that was written by specific industry groups to benefit their industries, then spread around the country into different state houses with little to no modification. There were another 4,012 copycat bills written by groups with conservative agendas and 1,602 written by liberal groups.

Again, the fact these biased groups are coming up with legislative ideas is not a bad thing in itself. But the reason they’re coming up with so many “ideas” is because the process currently allows them to operate in the shadows. Model legislation is currently the perfect way for people with less-than-upstanding agendas to hack the democratic process, avoid scrutiny and change the law to benefit themselves without the public being any wiser.

Our lawmakers are making this worse by accepting and sponsoring model legislation unquestioningly. In many cases, “lawmakers, even sponsors, often don’t read” the bills they vote for and sponsor, according to the investigation.

There is a fairly straightforward solution to a lot of this, and it’s something newspapers have used for centuries: attribution.

States should require legislators to identify where they got a bill from and any potential conflicts of interest the authoring individual or group might have.

This solution would shine a light on what is currently a dark and dingy corner of the lawmaking process. But it also doesn’t overreact by trying to shut out special interest groups from having a say.

There are many positive examples out there of legislation introduced in one state — by a special interest group, even — that then spreads to other states because it is successful or beneficial. We certainly don’t want to stop that positive process from happening. By requiring attribution, we won’t.

Attribution means we could continue to spread good ideas from state to state, but we would also know where ideas are coming from and whether more investigation is needed into why the idea is being proposed.