Arizona lawmakers outsource legislative ideas

PHOENIX – When Arizona lawmakers sponsored a 2016 house bill banning the sale of ivory and rhinoceros horn products, the bill matched almost exactly to language in legislation proposed outside Arizona.

But House Bill 2176, which never got a committee hearing, was not the only bill in the state’s 52nd legislative session that borrowed ideas, either in concept or verbatim, from bills in other states.

At least a handful of the 1,361 bills introduced in Arizona this year match bills introduced in other state legislatures, according to an AZCIR analysis comparing Arizona legislation to more than 500,000 bills, proposed in other states over the past eight years.

Nearly identical legislation introduced in multiple states, or “model legislation,” comes from national or regional industry associations, individual companies, or policy think-tanks and advocacy groups.

Some seek to create legal uniformity on technical topics that were passed successfully in different states, while others propose changes on a range of issues, from partisan pet projects to regulations that advantage certain companies or industries.

Emily Shaw, deputy policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparency in government, said model legislation isn’t new, and that its target can range from dramatic to subtle.

When model legislation is not aimed at a lightning-rod issue, Shaw said model bills frequently make slight tweaks to state law that can have a big impact on a business or an industry’s bottom line.

“It’s not just the exceptional cases like on abortion restrictions or gun sale regulations,” she said. “It’s more about where money goes.”

Groups that push model legislation such as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), among others, defend the practice. They argue there’s no need to reinvent the wheel in each state, and that if something is effective in one, it should be replicated elsewhere.

Others criticize model legislation, saying it reveals a pay-to-play political system by which organizations connect interest groups with lawmakers and top-dollar lobbyists who then exert outsized influence on legislators, serving the desires of those willing to finance each part of the process. They say the practice also reveals a departure from the idea that constituents’ needs drive states’ legislative agenda.

Shana Sally, a spokeswoman for ALEC, acknowledged that representatives of corporations are allowed to vote on what becomes a model ALEC bill, and said it would be unfair to leave them out, considering that they are so heavily impacted by changes in state laws and regulations.

Sally said ALEC’s model policies are available on their website, and that they’re open about what the organization represents.

“It’s the age old fight of limited government vs big government. We’re the people who represent groups that favor limited government.” Sally said. “We are not ashamed about what we do.”

Nick Rathod, the executive director of SiX, also acknowledges that his organization aims to change policies nationally by targeting state legislators, though SiX pushes left-leaning ideas.

“Because of the perpetual gridlock in Washington, D.C., a lot of policy making is moving to the states and people feel like they can have even more influence on state legislatures at much less of a cost,” Rathod said.

Both organizations claim ill motivation in the other. Sally said SiX serves the interests of liberal elites who fund them, such as George Soros. Rathod says the fact that ALEC allows corporations to vote on which policies to adopt means they’re in the pocket of big businesses looking only to maximize profits.

But making concrete observations about when and where it’s been used has been practically impossible, Sunlight Foundation’s Emily Shaw said.

“There’s not been an easily searchable copy of all legislation across the country,” Shaw said.

A new tool could change that.

In 2015, the University of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good Fellowship program developed the Legislative Influence Detector to analyze similar text in bills across the U.S.

The application combines a database of more than 500,000 pieces of proposed state legislation with an algorithm that can compare phrases to every recorded bill. The application is similar to “plagiarism detectors” frequently used by universities to check that student work is original.

For each piece of legislation passed through the algorithm, the application returns a file that shows which phrases match to previous bills. Each matching phrase is scored based on how many letters and words match.

The scores can indicate bills that might originate in other states, or come from organizations that have introduced them elsewhere.

Using the tool, AZCIR analyzed bills proposed during Arizona’s 2016 session. Some of the results showed clear pieces of model legislation. In other cases, the results indicated bills that at least partially borrow ideas from other places.

The Article was originally published on Arizona lawmakers outsource legislative ideas.

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