New Jersey has turned out to be a leader in a government practice that has received little attention until now — using what are called “model bills” to address issues common to many states. Only lawmakers in Mississippi use more of these legislative templates.
A nice piece of journalism just produced by USA Today, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity takes a deep and detailed look at the practice. Their two-year investigation found about 10,000 model bills introduced nationwide in the past eight years, with 2,100 of them signed into law.
The legislative models are often written by advocacy organizations, industry groups, corporations and think tanks. That poses a risk that they might influence laws in ways that legislators don’t intend — but since lobbyists have been helping lawmakers write bills forever, it’s a familiar risk, perhaps now just amplified a bit.
Some model bills require more oversight than others.
The study, for example, pointed to a model bill that would make it more difficult to sue for asbestos exposure. It was written by the American Legislative Exchange Council for the asbestos industry. Obviously, legislators must be sure there is a problem with how asbestos liability is being handled in their state before considering such a bill. And in the 13 states where a member of that council testified in favor of the bill it had written, the status of the witness should have been made clear.
A New Jersey example in the report shows model bills also can align with legislative intent and public opinion. Noting that state Sen. Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen, Passaic, has sponsored 15 model bills, it detailed one that was written by the National Council of Insurance Legislators. The bill was to require rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to perform background checks on drivers and to ensure they are covered by auto insurance while working. It was introduced in 31 states and became, as Lagana said, “kind of a national model.”
Having state government lawyers write every piece of legislation (at taxpayer expense) even when it duplicates what is being done elsewhere would be wasteful. Seeing how other states apply and enforce the same law also can be helpful. The report mentions several instances where model bills serve the public rather than special or private interests, such as requiring sex offenders to register with law enforcement, making it easier for members of the military to vote, and increasing the penalties for human trafficking.
One risk that the investigating journalists didn’t seem to consider is that increasing use of model bills could worsen legislative bloat. Law and regulation are already a vast, complicated and often hidden burden on people, restricting them and making life more expensive. Digital networks make it easy for lawmakers, who seem to always want to be seen doing something, to grab a bill from elsewhere and put their name on it. Perhaps there should also be model repeals and reforms, which would let them easily streamline and simplify the law where it’s advantageous.