Tuesday, February 16, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | For state legislators across the country, sponsoring bills can be as easy as filling in the blanks.

Groups from both ends of the political spectrum offer lawmakers “model” legislation requiring a minimal amount of tailoring from state to state. The nonpartisan Council of State Governments even issues an annual volume of “Suggested State Legislation” that this year includes templates for 54 bills.

Want to ban schools from collecting students’ facial-recognition data without a parent’s permission? See page 35. Make it harder for spyware to secretly collect information from computers? Page 50. Make it a crime to travel within or between states to engage in child sex? Flip to page 78, plug in the local information and put it to a vote.

While such templates have been around for years, lawmakers and lobbyists say technology has fanned the model bills from state to state faster than ever. Instead of scanning or even retyping sample bills, lawmakers can simply work with electronic versions of the legislation.

One example of a bill that is making the rounds is the “Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act,” which would ban government health insurance mandates. The proposal would assert a state-based right for people to pay medical bills from their own pocketbooks and prohibit penalties for those who refuse to carry health insurance.

Seen by some as a symbolic measure introduced as a backlash to Democratic health care plans pending in Congress, the act has been introduced in 30 states since the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council endorsed it at the end of 2008 - including five times in Tennessee alone.

Even groups that create the templates caution against using them as-is, warning they may offer too many benefits to an industry or advocacy group that might have had a hand in crafting the model legislation.

Tennessee Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, a member of the Lexington, Ky.-based Council of State Governments, said ideology doesn’t determine the council’s decisions on suggested legislation and most of the hundreds of bills submitted by lawmakers do not get included.

“It’s a pretty stringent review, and there are criteria for whether they’re unique and novel enough,” Mr. Norris said. “It’s really meant as an aid - a guide - so that local legislatures don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

The model legislation often intersects with the legislative goals of advocacy groups. For example, the Council on State Governments’ guide includes a measure based on a 2008 Florida law that says employers can’t prohibit workers from storing guns in cars parked in company lots. The guns-in-cars measure has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and similar laws have been enacted in Arizona, Louisiana and Utah.

Industry groups have also taken note. The Consumer Specialty Products Association was thwarted by Congress in its efforts to enact federal legislation to require a bittering agent in engine coolant and antifreeze, but the group developed model legislation that has been introduced around the country.

The measure is promoted as way to prevent pets from drinking poisonous antifreeze, but the model bill also includes a key provision to limit antifreeze makers’ liability from lawsuits filed about the effects of the bittering agent.

The antifreeze law took effect Jan. 1 in Tennessee and has also been enacted in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state.

Nathan Newman, executive director of the liberal New York-based Progressive States Network, criticized the American Legislative Exchange Council for being too cozy with the business interests that sponsor its events and for crafting model legislation with lawmakers behind closed doors.

Mr. Newman said his group tries to be transparent when it comes up with recommended legislation, “not as a top-down business community working in a back room [and] then try to force it down on a bunch of states.”

Tennessee state Rep. Curry Todd, a Republican and an officer with the Washington-based ALEC, said the close relationship with business interests creates balanced legislation.

“It’s not one side versus the other side,” he said. “If the private sector doesn’t agree, you don’t do it. If the public sector doesn’t agree, you don’t do it.”

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