A disturbing study shows that no matter where you live, a lot of the state laws you live by aren’t being written by the people you elect—or even their staff. They’re being written by special interests who benefit from the laws. Gordon Witkin, executive editor at the Center for Public Integrity, tells us about the evidence his group found in a joint investigation with USA Today and the Arizona Republic.
Gordon Witkin: We each used different forms of a computerized tool to look for matching language in state legislation. And we found a heck of a lot of it frankly, thousands of bills that were virtually word to word with other bills being proposed in other states.
Sharyl Attkisson: What does that tell you in just a sentence before we dig in, that there was so many bills that matched up?
Gordon Witkin: Well, it tells you that many bills, really a frightening number of bills in state legislatures are being written by special interests of one kind or another and handed out to friendly lawmakers and then introduced in state after state after state with very little knowledge or understanding that this is being done. It's very difficult for journalists, or has been, for them to connect these dots.
Sharyl: The average American, I think probably assumes that their laws are written by their elected officials. But your report states quite often that's not the case. The quote is: “Corporations, interest groups or their lobbyists often write fill in the blank documents, then shop them to state lawmakers.” Can I assume that many of our laws therefore aren't written to benefit we the people, they're more written to the benefit of these interests?
Gordon Witkin: That’s correct.
Sharyl: Does this explain why sometimes we hear an issue brought up maybe in one state, and before we know it, every state is considering kind of the same thing? In the past, partly, I think it's been marijuana legalization laws all seem to be happening at the same time. There are also abortion, on both sides, laws that are being introduced, but maybe this is not so organic.
Gordon Witkin: No. Often it's not. Often it is, it springs from the kind of phenomenon we're talking about whereby special interests, either on the left or the right, are pushing these bills in a whole variety of states at once. We are finishing up work for instance on abortion bills and we found that both sides the abortion rights community and those who want to limit abortion are making really deft use of model legislation in pushing bills around the country.
Sharyl: Which states did you find have the most bills that were copied from special interests that propose them?
Gordon Witkin: Pennsylvania was one of the leaders. There've also been a lot of these bills in Texas. One phenomena is that legislatures that don't meet for very long or in some cases meet only once every two years really have a crushing workload and thus are relying more on lobbyists to do large hunks of their work.
Sharyl: Are there other things that they special interests do to convince or make it a sweet deal for lawmakers to accept their legislation?
Gordon Witkin: We have found a number of special interest groups will have large meetings for lawmakers.or perhaps a junket is a better word where they'll fly a lawmakers into, we found one in one case to Disney world, pay for their expenses, a wine them and dine them and mix that in with a lot of ideology and pushing the causes that that special interest is in favor of. And then when the meeting's over, they'll hand all the legislators a piece of model legislation and say, well, we hope you've had a wonderful time. When you go back could you introduce this piece of legislation for us?
Sharyl: But this is legal.
Gordon Witkin: Yes.
Sharyl: In conclusion, why would you say this matters to the average person?
Gordon Witkin: Well, I think it goes back to something you said, which is that citizens have a right to believe that their legislators are working for them in the public interest. But what we found here is a system in which legislators are often working on behalf of special interests. And that not only is that alarming, but that much, most even members of the public have no idea how this system is working.
In terms of quantity, Witkins says the evidence shows tens of thousands of state bills in the past decade were copycat bills— written by special interests and submitted to lawmakers in multiple states.