Copy Cat Legislation

If you follow state-level politics, you are probably familiar with the idea of “model legislation.” This is when someone, usually a lobbying group or think tank, creates a bill that can be copied and pasted among legislators in varying states with little or no changes. The practice is most closely associated with the notorious conservative group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is known for writing bills and sending them home with legislators from their lavish retreats.

The practice of model legislation and its association with ALEC first gained mainstream attention in 2012 after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. When Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was initially not charged due to a law in Florida few people had heard of called “Stand Your Ground,” reporters and activists did some digging and discovered Stand Your Ground laws had originated with ALEC and been passed in 24 states.

ALEC’s model bills often serve two purposes. In the first case, these bills are simply designed to benefit the corporations which sustain ALEC through generous donations. For example, the rise of private prisons across the US (including here in Arizona) was due in large part to ALEC legislation that served to benefit ALEC members the Corrections Corporation of America (now rebranded as CoreCivic) and other companies that profit from the prison industrial complex.

But many ALEC laws are even more insidious. They intentionally push radical conservative and libertarian ideologies with the purpose of testing out these radical ideas and essentially seeing what they can get away with. And while the popular idea of an ALEC model bill usually involves a hapless state legislator copying and pasting their name and state onto a document like a college freshman plagiarizing a term paper (which does happen), this model usually involves introducing similar but slightly different versions in states across the country. They know many of these radical bills, which often seek to fundamentally alter current understandings of Constitutional rights, will face legal challenges, and the changes allow conservative legal groups allied with ALEC, like Scottsdale’s Alliance Defending Freedom, to try out different strategies and see which bills can past muster with the courts. Instead of copying and pasting, it’s more like throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

For example, ALEC was notoriously behind Arizona’s infamous SB 1070. And while much of the media coverage focused on how the bill helped ALEC’s sponsors in the private prison industry, it is also important to understand how the bill was a trial balloon for radical anti-immigrant policy. While most of SB 1070 was gutted by the Supreme Court, it also inspired similar but not identical bills around the country, many of which have had more success in court. And of course, SB 1070 and other state-level attacks on immigration created fertile ground for President Trump’s 2016 anti-immigrant campaign.

And now things have come full circle as, with President Trump’s reelection campaign on the horizon, Governor Ducey and GOP legislators are pushing forward with a state constitutional amendment banning “sanctuary cities,” which immigrant rights activists are calling SB 1070 Version 2.0. And they are not wrong. The sanctuary city ban, while not in the original SB 1070, was a feature of many of the bills ALEC tried out and got passed in its wake.  

And it is not just about immigration. Conservatives are also currently introducing slightly varying copycat legislation around the country attacking transgender youth, of which Sylvia Allen’s controversial bill to ban trans youth from school sports is just one. As writer Sydney Bauer explained in the New Republic last week, this is part of a “throw it against the wall” strategy to see what kinds of restrictions on the rights of trans youth will survive a court challenge.

The fight against reactionary legislation that attacks the rights of marginalized communities and benefits the wealthy and corporations is never about a single bill. It is about a long-term strategy on the other side and requires long-term strategic thinking from those of us who want to oppose it.

If you share this with that one person you never have anything to about with then you have something talk about. Problem Solved.


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