Copycat bills demand questions from voters, transparency from legislators

For anyone who follows state government, it’s always been a question: Why are Minnesota legislators so often addressing the same issues as legislators in other states? Is it the zeitgeist, or something else?

Think marijuana, tort reform, minimum wage, gay marriage, taxes on sugary drinks, etc. Now we know why — copycat legislation crafted and pushed by special interests.

A two-year investigation by USA Today, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity found that at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced in statehouses nationwide in the past eight years. More than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.

Minnesota legislators introduced at least 247 such bills from 2012 through 2018. (The research tool has yet to examine legislation proposed this session.) All these bills have roots in corporations, industry groups or think tanks. Those entities — essentially special interests — dream them up, tap experts to draft them and then find a legislator in targeted states to serve as chief author and lead the push to pass them.

As the USA Today report showed, sometimes legislators don’t even know these are “copy/paste/legislate” bills and often the bills are named in very misleading ways (as are original bills, to be fair).

Witness the Asbestos Transparency Act, which didn’t help people exposed to asbestos. It was written by corporations to make it harder for victims of asbestos-related illnesses to recoup money. The HOPE Act, introduced in nine states, was written by a conservative advocacy group to make it more difficult for people to get food stamps.

Those examples highlight the two most important takeaways. For voters: Ask more questions. For legislators: Be more transparent.

The lack of information involving these “copy/paste/legislate” bills is astounding. Until this report — which was generated through computer-assisted reporting that will continue with every legislative session — voters and even legislators likely did not know how common this practice had become. Of course, for those practicing it, that was great.

As the report noted, copycat bills don’t require registered lobbyists, don’t show up on expense reports or on campaign finance disclosure forms. Now, though, voters should demand to know what bills their legislators are sponsoring, who wrote them and why they deserve passage. If those bills are promoting good ideas, they will stand up to such scrutiny. …

Voters, it’s time to ask questions. It’s time to demand transparency.

It’s time to seriously reduce “copy/paste/legislate” in Minnesota and across the nation.

— St. Cloud Times

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