When lawmakers sought right-to-work legislation in Minnesota last year, they copied words written by a national conservative group that had been introduced in at least six other states.
A simultaneous effort to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol was nearly identical to language drafted by a left-leaning group that had been a source for dozens of bills in the Minnesota Legislature.
From abortion to paid sick leave to school choice, legislators in Minnesota and across the nation use prewritten bills for more than inspiration. They lift full paragraphs written by political and religious groups, repeating them nearly verbatim.
The outside help isn’t always ideological. Industry groups helped shape Minnesota bills to expand a cellphone user fee, clarify vehicle warranty requirements and make it easier for doctors to get licensed to practice in multiple states. Other organizations produce model bills aimed at standardizing less controversial state laws.
The number of model bills, or copycat legislation, introduced in Minnesota has increased in recent years, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data compiled by USA Today. From 2011 to 2018, at least 279 bills included language that closely mirrored measures created elsewhere. The data does not include the most recent legislative session.
More striking, the copycat bills have a better chance of being passed and signed into law than homegrown ones.
Of the nearly 300 bills that contained copycat language — a conservative estimate narrowed to only those bills that most closely matched models — more than 11% became law. A number of those were budget measures that contained model language in addition to other provisions.
The 11% success rate is significantly better than how bills generally fare. During that same time frame, about 3% of all bills introduced in Minnesota became law.
Model bills appear to constitute a small portion of the thousands of bills introduced every year, but they have involved some of the most nationally controversial issues.
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, has introduced more copycat bills than any other lawmaker in recent years. The bulk of his copycat measures focused on data privacy and government surveillance, such as requiring law enforcement to get a search warrant before operating a drone.
Minnesotans likely would be surprised to learn how many proposals at the Capitol are repurposed, he said.
“They’d assume probably that, hey, it’s the ‘I’m just a bill cartoon, right?’ And you get an idea and, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’ And that’s probably what I would have thought when I first started,” Lesch said, citing the “Schoolhouse Rock” song where a bill originates from “some folks back home.”
But Lesch said after 17 years in the Legislature, he has had several bills struck down in the courts and wants to avoid that. One way to prevent legal challenges is to use legislation that has been tested in other states, he said. Lesch was one of several legislators who said it can be helpful to tell colleagues that a proposal was successful elsewhere.
Most copycats are tailored to suit local legislators’ interests, Lesch noted, and “don’t come out the other end of the horse with the same language.”
In addition to organizations that share ideas between states and those that generate models on a broad range of topics, there are targeted efforts to propose prewritten legislation.
Groups on both sides of the abortion debate, including Faith2Action and National Partnership for Women and Families, provided the framework for at least 11 proposals from 2011 to 2018, including a 20-week abortion ban and a measure that would effectively repeal the current “informed consent” requirements that dictate what providers must tell women seeking abortions. Nearly identical language on the 20-week ban, introduced as recently as this year, has popped up in at least 14 other states, according to USA Today’s data analysis.
Copycat measures are hardly limited to Minnesota. USA Today’s investigation used a computer algorithm to compare nearly 1 million measures introduced across all 50 states and identified at least 10,000 bills with close to identical language.
But Minnesota’s mix of powerful interest groups, a part-time Legislature and “pretty thin research staffing” makes the state especially susceptible to model bills, said David Schultz, a political-science professor at Hamline University.
“They don’t have the ability to say ‘go draft a health care bill’ or ‘go draft an opioid bill,’ ” he said. “ ‘Let’s take one of those’ just becomes a necessity.”
In an age when state politics has become increasingly nationalized, copycat legislation is a bipartisan exercise. But one of the nation’s most effective practitioners is the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, which spreads model legislation ideas at its annual conferences attended by both legislators and industry representatives.
Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a state chairwoman for ALEC, said ideas for bills come from a variety of sources. “Expecting lawmakers to totally start from scratch,” she said, doesn’t make sense when draft language and research exists elsewhere.
“Conservatives will tend to have a same idea, that shouldn’t be a surprise, and people who are liberal and progressive are going to have the same ideas and talk to each other,” the Big Lake Republican said.
Kiffmeyer said ALEC has never asked her to carry a proposal, though she has found out after the fact that legislation she sponsored was a model bill. After she began pushing a voter ID proposal, for example, someone accused her of getting the idea from ALEC. But she said the group was not the source of the 2011 bill.
“I didn’t even know that they had such things. I said, ‘This is really insulting, you think that I, as a former secretary of state, can’t come up with an idea and draft it into legislation?’ ” she said. “It was really rather demeaning to me, considering my background and knowledge.”
State Innovation Exchange, formerly known as ALICE, has been billed by some as the left’s response to ALEC. It was a source for dozens of bills proposed in Minnesota, including an assault weapons ban and a move to elect the president by popular vote.
Executive Director Jessie Ulibarri said the group no longer provides model bills, though a library of legislation, last updated in 2016, was accessible online as recently as last week. Ulibarri, a former Colorado state senator, said the organization’s goal is to provide tools to make sure legislators are successful in enacting progressive proposals across the country.
“Many of these folks are serving in citizen legislatures. They’re not policy experts as their background. They are teachers or public advocates or parents who stepped into the role of public service,” Ulibarri said.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman spent the past week in Alaska considering model legislation at the Uniform Law Commission’s annual meeting. The nonpartisan group of lawyers tries to create clarity and uniformity across state statues. Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said model bills aren’t necessarily problematic, and Minnesota should borrow other states’ smart solutions.
Other groups, such as the Council of State Governments, disseminate ideas written in different states.
“Whether it’s a Minnesota special, or whether it’s a cookie-cutter bill that’s in all the 50 states, the concern is: What’s the source? And do people understand who is writing it and what that entity will get out of the legislation? That’s one issue,” she said. “But then swapping good ideas is a completely different thing.”
Good-government advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which has worked on model bills of its own, have said more transparency is needed when it comes to the influence of interest groups in the legislative process.
“A lot of people get nervous when the model legislation is introduced or pushed by, not ‘For the public, by the public,’ it’s pushed by a specific special interest. Especially if that special interest is also tied to political money,” League of Women Voters Minnesota Civic Engagement Director Nick Harper said, noting corporations can pay for an ALEC membership that lets them help draft model legislation.
Some states take a more direct approach to show who backs legislation. In California, bills are analyzed before committee hearings and the analysis document states which groups support or oppose the measure. Several Minnesota legislators weren’t familiar with that disclosure idea and said they were unsure how it would work in Minnesota. But lawmakers and advocates are certain the use of model language is not going to change.
“This is going to stick around,” Harper said. “There is no way this is going.”
-- Star Tribune data analyst Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.