Gehrke: Copycat legislation is rampant in Utah and other states. Voters deserve to know who is really writing their laws.

Robert Gehrke

Back in 2016, I got to meet Dale Petersen, who spent his life working for Utah Power & Light and his on-the-job exposure to asbestos left him with a terminal case of mesothelioma.

A few days before we spoke, Petersen celebrated his 70th birthday, then visited a doctor to have fluid drained from his lungs so he could go to the Capitol and testify against a bill he feared would prevent Utahns like him from getting compensation for their illnesses.

The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Brad Wilson (now the House speaker), was nearly identical to legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the National Council of Insurance Legislators and had the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Wilson scaled back his proposal before it passed, thanks to the efforts of attorneys who represent asbestos victims like Petersen, who unfortunately passed on Thanksgiving that same year.

At the time, the same legislation had been proposed in California, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, New York and Tennessee and since then has been introduced in several more states.

This sort of copy-and-paste legislating is by no means a new trend, but is more pervasive than you might imagine.

A truly remarkable two-year investigation by USA Today and the Arizona Republic recently found examples of more than 10,000 bills copied from model legislation and introduced in legislatures around the country. More than 2,100 of them made it into law.

It took a team of 50 reporters and some 150 computers running nonstop for months, scouring the language of proposed bills and comparing it to model legislation to come up with the figure, which, I assure you, significantly understates the actual number. That’s because they could only detect bills based on publicly available model legislation, and for all of those we know about, there are many that we don’t.

I don’t have 150 computers, but I can tell you there have been numerous examples of copycat legislation in Utah in just the last few years and many more we don’t know about.

In March, for example, Rep. Kim Coleman was praised as ALEC’s Legislator of the Month nationwide, thanks to her passage of a bill targeting free-speech restrictions on Utah college campuses, a featured issue for the conservative organization.

It is an issue Coleman has championed for several years, but was initially based on model legislation created by the Goldwater Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank based in Arizona, and promoted by a group called FIRE, short for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It first passed in Missouri, then in Virginia and has been considered in several states since.

A representative from FIRE spoke to the House Republican caucus last session before Coleman’s bill came up for a vote.

This year, Utah joined 27 other states that have passed resolutions calling for a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an idea Utah lawmakers had resisted for years. The Utah bill to join that movement, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, was a pure copy-and-paste job, identical to the ALEC bill.

In 2017, Sen. Wayne Harper sponsored legislation overhauling Utah’s occupational licensing rules — legislation that drew extensively from ALEC’s language. And last session, Utah strengthened its “stand-your-ground” law, which now does not require a gun owner to retreat from a conflict. The legislation had been a high-profile ALEC model bill.

There are legitimate reasons to draw on model legislation. With Utah lawmakers working on nearly 1,400 bills a year, staff attorneys are stretched thin, so why go through the time and mess of making sausage from scratch when you can buy some off the shelf?

And there’s value in avoiding pitfalls and learning from another state’s mistakes or successes.

But there are also questionable motives for groups promoting model bills. It’s easier to convince state legislatures to act than Congress, for example. Special interests can hide the money they’re putting behind a bill, conceal its true intent with a misleading name, and obscure who really stands to gain from its passage.

And the ALEC model, with annual retreats for legislators and corporate backers, gives big business interests a perfect, private opportunity to lobby lawmakers.

While conservative groups and industry backed organizations craft the biggest chunk of model legislation, and the most egregious bills, there are plenty of other national groups that do the same thing.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Gary Herbert held a major ceremony to sign into law a hate crimes bill that had languished for years. That bill, according to its sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, was fashioned based on language from the Anti-Defamation League, a group created to protect the rights of Jewish people.

A bill to ban conversion therapy that was gutted and then shelved last session was initially fashioned after legislation passed in Nevada.

For the past two years, Rep. Norm Thurston has sponsored legislation to create a program to import prescription medications from Canada, a bill that was crafted by the National Academy for State Health Policy, a non-partisan network of state lawmakers.

We won’t close the door on model bills making it into law, nor would we necessarily want to. But voters — and legislators, for that matter — deserve to know who is really driving a bill, who wrote it and who stands to benefit.

This session, Utah lawmakers should consider a new rule requiring lawmakers to disclose when they’re running bills they copied from some other group or industry and who it is. That way, we can get some sunlight and assurances that our laws represent Utahns and not some out-of-state special interest that lurks in the shadows.