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State lawmakers copied 10,000 bills from model text

USING THE PROCESSING POWER equivalent to 150 computers running non-stop for several months, a group of journalists has quantified the extent to which state lawmakers borrow from model bill texts – which are often backed by industry or ideological groups.

Over the past eight years, 10,163 bills out of the nearly 1 million introduced in state legislatures were almost entirely copied, and there are untold other bills whose ideas – but not the precise language – came from model bills, according to the two-year investigation by USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and the Center for Public Integrity.

There is nothing inherently wrong with model legislation. Advocates from various points on the political spectrum use the tactic. When partisan gridlock prevents passage of federal legislation, lobbyists look to state capitols to adopt their proposed policies.

The story references proposed taxes on sugar-laden drinks as one example of legislation that borrows from model bills.

Appearing on The Horse Race podcast this week, Allyson Perron, the government relations director for the American Heart Association in Massachusetts, spoke about that proposal in terms that make it clear there is a multi-state lobbying effort afoot.

“We’ve seen success in a lot of local municipalities on passing a sugary drink tax. No state has done it, so Massachusetts certainly has the opportunity to be on the early end of that,” Perron said. “There are several states that have proposed it, including all the ones that surround us.”

Perron’s comments also get at one of the conceits of policymakers in Massachusetts and no doubt other states — to be the ones to create the model. It’s hard to spend very much time on Beacon Hill without hearing someone referencing how the state constitution was the template for the national one, or how Romneycare begat Obamacare.

The big data story includes some graphics that indicate in Massachusetts the majority of prepackaged legislative proposals don’t come from ideological organizations on the left or right, but from industry groups.

In Massachusetts, the door is wide open for the filing of legislation. The 200 lawmakers can file legislation throughout the two-year session, and certain other government officials have the power to introduce bills in the Legislature. State reps and senators usually file bills at the request of constituents even if they don’t agree with the proposed policy – designating that those bills were filed at the request of that person.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Other states have more limited legislative sessions and some have offices tasked with turning elected officials’ ideas into legislation. The copycat bill story published Thursday will land in the midst of legislative sessions for the majority of states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures calendar, though the sessions in Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming have already ended. Of the roughly 10,000 bills that copied proposed text, more than 2,100 were signed into law in recent years.

While there might not be anything nefarious about using model legislation, it seems like a public good to shine a spotlight on the practice. Lawmakers rely on lobbyists because they have the proposed solutions at the ready, along with talking points and experts to make the case. Now the public has some data to understand that dynamic a little better.