How much of a bill do lawmakers actually write?
According to an article published earlier this year jointly by USA Today, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity, there were nearly 10,000 bills introduced in all 50 state legislatures from 2010 through 2018 that were almost identically copied from “model legislation.” And those were just the ones they were able to track.
Model legislation can mean a couple of different things, but mainly refers to potential laws drawn up by industry lobbyists or advocacy groups that seek to replicate similar laws across the United States. Of those 10,000, more than 2,000 were passed and became law.
One good example of such a practice in West Virginia from this year is the education omnibus bill that failed to pass during the regular session but did pass during a special session.
The bill came from model legislation made available by the conservative American Legal Exchange Council. However, this bill went through several revisions before it was finally passed.
According to the USA Today report, of the 10,000 pieces of model legislation examined, 4,301 came from industry groups or lobbyists, while another 4,012 came from conservative groups like ALEC. Just over 1,600 came from liberal political groups, and about 250 came from other sources. Of those that became law, more than 1,500 were from industry groups, while 811 were from conservative political groups.
Over the eight-year period studied, Mississippi ranked highest on introducing model legislation, at 744 bills, most taken from conservative or industry groups.
In West Virginia, according to a story published this month in USA Today, but working with basically the same data, 325 bills taken from model legislation were introduced between 2010 and 2018. Nearly all were either from industry groups or conservative political groups. Former Republican delegates Ron Walters and Kelli Sobonya led the pack with model bills introduced, at 38 and 33, respectively.
Some argue that model legislation coming from a think tank or a business lobby gives legislators something to work with in drafting legislation. However, several prominent examples of this type of legislation are specifically designed to mislead in order to succeed.
For instance, the USA Today story mentioned the “Asbestos Transparency Act,” which sounds nice enough but was in fact drafted by corporations that wanted to make it more difficult for those harmed by asbestos to win court settlements. The report also makes mention of the “HOPE Act,” which was introduced as legislation in nine states. The bill’s purpose is to make it harder for people to get food stamps.
West Virginians saw some of this branding at work after the education bill, which, in its raw form, took massive strides toward privatization, failed in the regular session. Heading into the special session, it was renamed “The Student Success Act” by Senate leadership, though the House of Delegates eventually stripped that title from the bill. The West Virginia Legislature has also seen no shortage of bills with “commerce” or some other broad term in the title that actually seek to strip protective rights from the LGBTQ community.
Whether model legislation is good or bad may depend on who is viewing it, but purposely deceptive titles show a clear intent to confuse and, as is often said, if it were a good bill there wouldn’t be any need for obfuscation. The practice of legislators listening to their constituents and going from there — though seemingly growing out of style — is still the most effective basis for a representative government. West Virginians should demand their elected leaders listen to them, not to a lobby or think tank spitting out cut-and-paste legislation.